Australia is wrong, we are friends to the Pacific says China

A Papua New Guinea government and business delegation, headed by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, was accorded full ceremonial honours by the Chinese government on their arrival in Beijing on June 20, 2018, to sign the Belt and Road Initiative. Picture: Supplied

BEIJING, 20 JULY 2018 (SMH) – China has said Australian politicians are “wrong” to fear its investments in the Pacific, saying Pacific Islands require large amounts of capital to “take off” economically, and that its aid programme is a response to “urgent needs”.

Responding to Australian government criticism that Chinese aid risked creating unsustainable debt burdens for the Pacific, China’s foreign ministry has challenged Australian officials to “name one example with specific details as to where, when and how China caused unsustainable debt?”

On Wednesday, Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong proposed Australia should set up a regional infrastructure fund to assist Pacific nations who face a “particularly acute” infrastructure deficit, and said she expected the US to adopt a similar policy.

It follows foreign minister Julie Bishop saying last month: “We’re concerned that the consequences of [Pacific Islands] entering into some of these financing arrangements [with China] will be detrimental to their long-term sovereignty.”

The Pentagon’s top Asia official Randy Schriver on Monday accused China of “pernicious meddling” in the Pacific, which he said would be raised in annual AUSMIN talks between Bishop and defence minister Marise Payne next week.

But Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing that claims China was creating debt traps in the Pacific were groundless.

“Economic take-off and early stages of industrialisation need to be supported by a large amount of capital. Our financing support in accordance with the recipient countries’ wishes has met their urgent needs in a timely fashion,” said Hua.

China had offered assistance to the best of its capability, she added.

In an unusually lengthy statement, she quoted Pacific government ministers who had “refuted the wrong remarks of the Australian side”.

Reports that Australian security agencies had opposed Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s bid to build an undersea cable for the Solomon Islands, and also from involvement in Australia’s 5G mobile network, were concerning, she said.

In recent weeks, China’s foreign ministry has given a series of detailed responses to critical reports in foreign media, particularly on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Former Chinese ambassador to Australia and Britain, Fu Ying, said in a speech this week that China needed to get better, and faster, at explaining its behaviour to the world.

“The world has expectations for China’s role, but there are also concerns. Chinese seem to lack the initiative to explain their habits and experience,” she wrote.

Madam Fu, a vice foreign minister, said “misunderstanding will become popular” if China didn’t improve its international communication.

Bishop and Payne are due to meet US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis, next week for the annual AUSMIN consultations. They met with their UK counterparts Thursday.

The Chinese navy’s floating hospital ship Peace Ark will tour Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, after being anchored in Port Moresby for a week.

China and Taiwan have engaged in a decades-long rivalry for diplomatic recognition among Pacific nations, using aid as a carrot.

But China’s increased infrastructure spending in the Pacific has concerned the Turnbull Government, which says it wants to step up its engagement and be the “partner of choice” in the Pacific.

Australia continues to be the Pacific’s largest aid donor, spending $1.3 billion (US$956 million) on development assistance this year.

Bishop did not respond to a request to comment.

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