Image CopyrightGetty Images ] CaptionsA sign in Port Moresby has leaders for China and Papua New Guinea shaking hands There…
There is a joke in Port Moresby today about how the Chinese agreed to finance the construction of the city’s largest boulevard.
On a new trip to Beijing, or so, the Papua New Guinea prime minister told the Chinese president how much he wanted a large, wide road running through the center of Port Moresby, the capital.
No problem, pointed out the Chinese president. Just tell one thing, he asked. Should it be big enough for thoughts to roll down like ours?
There are a lot of these types of anecdotes about Chinese investment that run around Port Moresby these days, and this dark joke points to some of the concerns here when Beijing’s influence grows.
Drive around Port Moresby before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit, my local guide points to all the projects that the Chinese have helped to build for the event. Roads, arenas ̵
1; even bus stops have been built with Chinese money.
But it’s not just for Apec.
Over the last decade, the scale of Chinese support and investment across the Pacific has increased significantly, as the Lowy Institute’s recent studies show.
According to the Institute’s Pacific Aid Map, China’s aid expenses in Papua New Guinea (PNG) amounted to SEK 20.83 million (15.99 million) in 2016. A year later, it was three times as much.
Let’s put this in context.
Australia is still spending much more in Papua New Guinea than China does – 70% of its aid comes from its former colonial ruler.
Papua New Guinea is the poorest member in Apec and about 40% of the population lives on less than $ 1 a day, according to the United Nations.
The locals tell me that Australia has historically invested in areas such as education and training for better governance.
China is currently investing in areas such as Papua New Guinea saying that it needs desperate right now: infrastructure.
“China has built roads, bridges, and they continue to do so,” said the Managing Director of the Papua New Guinea business council Douveri Henao.
“And not only in PNG. The ambition is just over the Pacific. “
It’s part of China’s Betting and Road Initiative, a multi billion dollar program aimed at joining China to the rest of the world through trade and investment.
It is President Xi Jinpsen’s darling – but the same Chinese ambition is what is believed to be behind Australia’s commitment to a $ 1 billion dollar fund last week to invest in infrastructure and counter China’s growing influence here.
Critics of China’s aid and investment policy in PNG also tells that the problem of Chinese money is often that there is no insight into how the funds are paid out and who they go to.
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Mediaskrift Apec: Summit on a Boat Outside Papua New Guinea
Part of the problem is the lack of governance and high corruption within PNG itself. But the other problem is that Beijing often spends money first – and asks questions later.
This often leads to unnecessary and wasteful projects, when the money could have been used for other more pressing needs in the country as healthcare.
There are economic and diplomatic reasons for Beijing investing in the Pacific.
Papua New Guinea is, for example, home to many natural resources, including rare earth minerals, and the Pacific Ocean is home to one third of the world’s supporters of Taiwan – something analysts say China would like to influence.
But it’s China’s long-term strategic ambitions that address the biggest issues.
“What you see now is the geopolitization of aid,” told Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute.
“The great fear of countries such as Australia and the United States is that Beijing’s final play is to create a permanent military base somewhere in the Pacific for the next twenty to thirty years. Therefore, you’ve seen Washington and Canberra react ways that they must increase the Chinese influence in Pacific. “
Papua New Guinea is a few thousand kilometers from Guam, an American base.
A new report from the United States Department of Defense on China’s military power highlights the credibility that the Chinese army will want to “expand its operations beyond the first stage, demonstrating the ability to beat the United States and allied forces and military bases in the west Pacific, including Guam. “
Most analysts, including the Lowy Institute Mr. Pryke, do not think this will happen.
But it’s enough a threat to convince Americans and Australians to pay much more attention to the Pacific.
That’s why it will not only splash the cash in Papua New Guinea this week. The United States, Australia and Japan are likely to bring gifts to Pacific Ocean when they visit Port Moresby for Apec.
Papua New Guinea is now the latest battlefield for economic and political influence between China and the Caribbean.