China has continued its deliberate intent to make inroads in the Pacific as President Xi Jinping visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) ahead of the Asia-Pacific summit held on Thursday. The small island nation looked to give what it called an ‘excellent’ welcome to its esteemed guest.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum convened in Port Moresby, where Australia and China held a fairly open phase of diplomatic questioning about how much influence each will allow the other to exert.
In recent weeks, China has called for both sides to keep cooperating, a sentiment echoed by Australian ministers. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to balance this with strong rhetoric, warning China that ‘this is our patch’ with regard to the smaller Asia-Pacific nations that Australia has had a long relationship with.
PNG is one of the poorest nations in the Pacific region and is likely to try and welcome as much investment that might come its way as possible. The country’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, ramped up the positive talk beforehand, saying that PNG would offer Xi ‘a very excellent traditional welcome.’
Given that Australia used to administer PNG, the long-standing ties between the two countries are inevitable. However, there are signs that China’s overtures could easily sway PNG. The latter has struggled to maintain a stable GDP and growth in the past but is known to be rich in some resources, which makes it well-positioned to receive certain types of investment. In recent years, both Australia and the US have shied away from PNG and allowed China to exert a greater influence.
What this means for the future of PNG will be interesting to see, particularly because Australia has said that it still intends to control the Pacific sphere somewhat by making investments in telecommunications, technology, and military training in this region. Its move away from PNG when China is making waves seems to conflict with its previous assertions.
US President Donald Trump has stepped even further away, as he wishes to spar with China from home rather than in other territories. Trump sent US Vice President Mike Pence to APEC in his place. Pence will not be spending long in PNG and will fly in and out for the summit from a base in Northern Australia.
Although PNG is hosting APEC, Xi will use some time to hold bilateral talks with several other countries that are attending, including Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands. China should carry on with its aim of enticing the region with the announcement of a large investment package aimed at providing aid in key areas. Australia announced a similar plan in recent weeks, so China’s move seems to be a counter-measure to keep an even level of influence.
The APEC forum will likely center around just how intensely Australia, China, New Zealand and the US are vying for the Pacific region and what each can bring to the area.
Xi told press that he is excited by how China’s ties with PNG have grown and hailed this as the ‘epitome of China’s overall relations with Pacific Island countries.’