China says nobody can stand in its way in Pacific island cooperation

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: RNZ

BEIJING, 16 NOVEMBER 2018 (REUTERS/AP)—No country can block China’s cooperation with island nations in the Pacific and the area is no country’s sphere of influence, a senior diplomat said, ahead of a summit between President Xi Jinping and Pacific island leaders.

Australia, in particular, has been vying for influence with China in sparsely populated Pacific island countries that control vast swathes of resource-rich oceans.

Australia will offer Pacific countries up to A$3 billion (US$2.18 billion) in grants and cheap loans to build infrastructure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.

Xi is due to meet leaders from eight Pacific nations it has diplomatic ties with at the end of the week in Papua New Guinea, where he will offer “important measures” for more cooperation, Vice Foreign Minister ZhengZeguang told a news briefing.

“Other countries should not obstruct China’s friendly cooperation and exchanges with the island nations. Of course, they have no way to obstruct this cooperation and these exchanges,” Zheng said, without specifying any country.

Meeting in Beijing last week, the Chinese government’s top diplomat told his Australian counterpart that Beijing and Canberra should be cooperating in the South Pacific and not be cast as strategic rivals.

Zheng said China was willing to cooperate with other countries in the Pacific, and that everyone should “positively respond to the special difficulties island nations face and urgent needs” and help them to achieve sustainable development.

“The island country region is not any country’s sphere of influence. Everyone should jointly help the island nations,” he said.

“We hope that relevant parties can objectively and positively view China’s relations with Pacific Island nations, and earnestly abandon outdated concepts of Cold War thinking and zero-sum games, and do more to benefit the island nations’ development and improvement of livelihoods and regional peace and stability.”

China has spent US$1.3 billion on concessionary loans and gifts since 2011 to become the Pacific’s second-largest donor after Australia, stoking concern in the West that several tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt to Beijing.

Xi will be meeting the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Micronesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue.

Zheng did not give a date for the summit, only saying meetings would be happening in Port Moresby on Friday, ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Papua New Guinea on the weekend.

After three decades of promoting free trade as a panacea to poverty, the APEC grouping of nations that includes the U.S. and China is holding its lavish annual leaders’ meeting in the country that can least afford it.

Barely penetrated by roads and scarred by violence, Papua New Guinea hopes the parade of world leaders will lift the mountainous Pacific nation of hundreds of tribal groups out of obscurity and attract investment.

But the expense has brought criticism when the government has a budget crisis, basic medicines are scarce, and polio, eliminated from all but a handful of countries, has returned. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund estimated that upgrading the capital for the event and hosting a year of related meetings could cost US$1 billion.

Australia, the biggest foreign aid donor to Papua New Guinea and former colonial occupier, as well as China and other countries have absorbed some of the cost but critics have already been given plenty of vindication.

In an eye-popping move, the government imported 40 luxury Maserati cars to whisk VIPs among convention venues in the secure bubble of the APEC meetings. Officials said the government would sell them to recover the cost, sparking more disbelief and suspicions of a corrupt scheme.

Chinese government money, meanwhile, has built what has been dubbed a boulevard to nowhere in the capital Port Moresby, a city described by the World Bank as among the world’s most violent due to high unemployment and brazen criminal gangs known as “raskols.”

A VIP terminal costing about US$19 million was added to the city’s airport. Construction of an iconic building “APEC Haus” for the leaders’ summit was paid for by oil and gas company Oil Search, which operates all of Papua New Guinea’s oil fields, in exchange for tax credits. That avoided an immediate cost for the government but will erode its revenue in the future.

“I think the money should have been used to fix our backyard instead of decorating the front porch. We have health, education and infrastructure deficiencies that need to be addressed,” said activist and writer Martyn Namorong.

“Many teachers haven’t been paid and hospitals lack medicines,” he said. “There is so much misery experienced by ordinary Papua New Guineans while the elite party with the world like there is no tomorrow.”

What the weeklong talkfest will produce, other than its signature photo of world leaders in locally themed shirts, is unclear. In the impenetrable language of APEC, the meeting is about “Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities, Embracing the Digital Future.”

Allan Bollard, executive director of the APEC secretariat, said the meeting is complicated by the tensions between China and the U.S. over trade and the broader backlash against globalization — the dominant Western-led ideology over the past four decades that freer trade and movement of people is inevitably good for all.

“This year we’ve had more bilateral trade friction, between the U.S. and China in particular, and that does make it more complex around the table in the sense that APEC only does initiatives where everybody agrees,” Bollard said.

Port Moresby, a city where foreigners and the local elite live in homes barricaded behind high walls and barbed wire, will host more than 12,000 visitors for the meetings that end on Sunday.

Because of a shortage of hotels, many will stay in three cruise ships docked at Port Moresby and be shuttled back and forth in some of the hundreds of vehicles imported for the event. The city will be crawling with police and military, some of them from Australia and New Zealand, who are providing air force planes, navy patrol boats, special forces and other personnel.

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