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France’s President Emmanuel Macron will visit Papua New Guinea next week, the latest world leader to visit the Pacific Islands nation which says it is “neutral ground” amid competition between China and the US for influence in the region.

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape said in a statement on Tuesday that Macron’s one-day visit on July 28 showed France’s commitment to strengthening the bilateral relationship.

French company TotalEnergies is the top stakeholder and operator of a proposed major liquefied natural gas project, Papua LNG.

“In the midst of the evolving geopolitical landscape in the region, Papua New Guinea serves as ‘neutral ground’, and I will urge France to consider PNG’s strategic position amidst the changing regional dynamics,” Marape said.

The resource-rich but largely undeveloped nation of 9 million, a few kilometres north of Australia’s Torres Strait, signed a defence cooperation agreement with the US during a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in May.

Marape has said he also wants to expand trade with China, a major infrastructure provider, and he will visit Beijing later in the year.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Pacific Island leaders in the PNG capital Port Moresby on the same day as Blinken’s visit.

The Pacific Islands strategic position between the United States and Asia, and scrutiny of China’s security ambitions in the region, has come into focus since the Solomon Islands struck a security pact with China last year.

Severed fingertip sent in letter to Macron

Visiting China last week, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a policing agreement and pledged support for Beijing’s Global Security Initiative.

France has a Pacific Islands presence with overseas territories New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Fortuna, and its navy is involved in regional surveillance patrols for illegal fishing.

Macron will also visit Vanuatu and New Caledonia, local media reported.

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