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Australia welcomes US-Papua New Guinea defence pact

France and Australia's Foreign and Defence ministers meet in Paris

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Australian government on Tuesday welcomed a defence cooperation agreement between its closest neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the U.S. aimed at bolstering regional security amid China's plans to increase influence in the Pacific.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and PNG Prime Minister James Marape on Monday signed the defence pact in the Pacific nation's capital of Port Moresby, which would make it easier for the U.S. military to train PNG's armed forces.

"It's really good that we are seeing America becoming more and more engaged in the Pacific region and specifically with Papua New Guinea," Defence Minister Richard Marles told Sky News. "A greater American involvement the region and in its relationship with PNG is good news for us."

The United States and ally Australia for decades have seen the Pacific as their sphere of influence, and are seeking to deter the island nations from forming security ties with China, after Beijing signed a security pact with Solomon Islands last year.

Blinken said the deal with PNG was not about any other country while Marape flagged the accord updated an existing U.S. military relationship and "has nothing to do with China".

Marles described Australia's ties with China "a very complex relationship" but said he also valued "a productive relationship" as Canberra seeks to stabilise relations with its largest trading partner.

Diplomatic tensions have eased after several ministerial meetings and last week China said it would resume the import of Australian timber. Unofficial bans and tariffs were placed on several Australian commodities in 2020.

As Australia urges China to get bilateral trade relations back to normal, Marles said Canberra would not impose conditions that all tariffs had to be lifted before a potential trip to China by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this year.

"We're not about to put conditionality on a visit of that kind," Marles said.

(This story has been refiled to correct the spelling of 'closest' in paragraph 1)

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast)