China Seeks to Boost Influence With APEC Forum Host Papua New Guinea

November 4, 2018 Updated: November 4, 2018

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

Critics say the six-lane road financed by China—complete with wide, illuminated footpaths—is emblematic of a regional power play in which donor countries vie for influence with show-stopper gifts.

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

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

“Whatever the Chinese government spent on 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 didn’t respond to questions on funding for the boulevard project or other aspects of APEC.

Diplomatic sources told Reuters that nearly all leaders attending the event would be traveling in special armored vehicles, making it unclear what the sports cars would be used for.

Aiding and Indebting

If the region—pivotal in the Pacific battles of World War II—is a strategic treasure, PNG is one of its jewels.

It controls large swaths of ocean, is rich in mineral resources, and is close to both U.S. military bases in Guam and Australia.

Formerly administered by Canberra, PNG has in recent years turned increasingly to China for financing as Beijing becomes a bigger player in the region. PNG has the largest debt to China in the South Pacific, at almost $590 million, representing about one-quarter of its total external debt.

When world leaders arrive in Port Moresby for APEC, the contributions of donors will be obvious.

Australia will provide security personnel, naval patrol boats, and a helicopter-docking ship; and the city will have an upgraded sewerage system, courtesy of the Japanese government. Beijing has refurbished the showpiece convention center and gifted coaches, mini-buses, and fire-engines.

China also rebuilt the city’s main highway, which according to Moresby-based think tank the Institute of National Affairs, didn’t really need an upgrade. The institute’s executive director, Paul Barker, said the resurfaced streets and new boulevard had little public benefit.

“It’s hard to imagine the boulevard will have any use other than marches or grand displays from time to time,” he said.

“It’s not really a road that goes from anywhere to anywhere.”

While the exact cost of each project is unclear, a Reuters analysis of PNG government announcements shows China’s total bill would be several tens of millions of dollars.

On Nov. 1, Australia announced it would help fund a PNG naval base that China had expressed an interest in funding.

“Over the last year, we have seen Australia and New Zealand aggressively expand their focus on the Pacific, which is something we are very pleased about,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

China’s growing influence has been observed with wariness by the United States and its allies.

A congressional report in June concluded that Beijing’s goals in the South Pacific include limiting Taiwan’s international space and gaining access to raw materials and natural resources for its benefits.

In July, a New Zealand government defense report warned that Communist China’s rising influence could undermine stability in the region.

By Jonathan Barrett and Colin Packham. Epoch Times staff member Annie Wu contributed to this report.