China’s boulevard to nowhere: The battle for influence in APEC’s Pacific host

FILE PHOTO: China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during the opening of a new Chinese Embassy in the Dominican Republic, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Workers are putting the finishing touches on a Beijing-funded boulevard designed to showcase Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) capital to visiting world leaders at this month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Critics say the six-lane road – complete with wide, illuminated footpaths – is emblematic of a regional power play whereby donor countries vie for influence with show-stopper gifts, even as deeper problems plague the Pacific nation.

Australia, PNG’s traditional partner and a close Washington ally, is lifting aid and has plowed more than A$120 million ($86.5 million) into APEC, seeking to keep its sway over its neighbor.

Allan Bird, a parliamentarian and governor of PNG’s second largest province, said the boulevard outside parliament house had little practical benefit.

“Whatever the Chinese government spent on it, it could have been better spent somewhere else, buying medicine or building a school,” Bird told Reuters.

Bird said such gifts put pressure on traditional partners such as Australia to place less restrictions around donated funds and refrain from criticizing PNG’s own spending, which controversially includes buying 40 Maseratis and three Bentleys for APEC.

“There is no transparency around the use of public finances,” Bird said.

“The government can turn to other donors and tell them to ‘toe the line or else we’ll be quite happy to take Chinese money’. They use it as leverage.”

The PNG government did not respond to questions on funding for the boulevard project or other aspects of APEC. PNG has previously thanked China for its infrastructure funding and aid, and denied Beijing had asserted any diplomatic pressure.