24 Nov 2018

Pacific leaders more questioning of Chinese influence

8:10 pm on 24 November 2018

By Michael Walsh

Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby was a sea of red in the lead up to the APEC summit - Chinese flags dotted major roads, and the face of China's powerful president-for-life was pasted high on billboards.

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President of China Xi Jinping arrives at APEC in Port Moresby. Photo: AFP / Pool / Eyepress

Chinese President Xi Jinping's official state visit in the days before APEC gave his presence there an air of star power, and highlighted the notable absences of US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But while APEC should have been all about Mr Xi this year, the expectation of new Chinese loans and aid pledges to the Pacific region appeared to go largely unmet.

Instead, China was upstaged by traditional aid partners Australia, the United States, Japan, and New Zealand, whose huge infrastructure promises to the host nation in particular were the big takeaways from the summit.

So was China's showing in Port Moresby a sign of shifting attitudes among Pacific leaders, or was it just a chaotic weekend for Beijing?

Welcome to 'the Xi Show'

The Lowy Institute's Jonathan Pryke attended the summit last weekend, and was also there for Mr Xi's state visit in the days before APEC's official opening.

"The lead in to the APEC summit, it was really primed to be the Xi Show," he said.

"The ceremony and pomp attached to that was a bit over the top, to be honest. There were red flags everywhere.

"He really was on a charm offensive, and by all accounts, the celebrity of Xi and his accessibility particularly to Papua New Guinean MPs really resonated."

However Mr Pryke, who is the director of the institute's Pacific Islands Program, said this wasn't really matched up with any major announcements by Beijing.

Mr Xi held a special meeting with leaders of Pacific Island nations who have diplomatic ties with China ahead of the event, which was expected to result in significant new aid pledges.

But the Chinese delegation barred Papua New Guinean and international media from covering the event - Chinese state media, on the other hand, were welcome to report on the proceedings.

Mr Pryke, who was also not allowed to attend that meeting, said this meant observers are still piecing together what was discussed between Mr Xi and Pacific leaders.

It has been revealed that two nations, Tonga and Vanuatu, announced they had signed onto China's controversial trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, but the drip-feed of information has been slow.

"They really just [kicked] an own goal here by barring the media, by not making a big splash of these announcements," Mr Pryke said.

Towards the end of the summit - after negotiations over the summit's failed communique broke down - Chinese delegates stormed into the office of PNG's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato.

The delegates had earlier been denied a meeting with Mr Pato, who was the chair of the summit and who was required to remain impartial throughout negotiations.

Security had to be called before the Chinese negotiators eventually left the room, multiple independent sources told the ABC - Chinese officials have denied the incident ever happened.

What did Xi promise the Pacific?

The full picture of how Mr Xi's meeting with Pacific leaders went is still emerging, and Chinese state media write ups on the dinner have been fairly bland reads and scarce on details.

One announcement to emerge was Tonga's decision to sign onto the Belt and Road initiative, which also came with a five-year reprieve on the country's debt repayments to China.

Tonga had been due to start paying back the approximately $160 million it owes China, which is around one third of the country's Gross Domestic Product.

Mr Xi also announced at the meeting that Vanuatu had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the framework of the Belt and Road initiative - the deal was inked earlier this month, but was only made public in Port Moresby.

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China also said it had approved Vanuatu's request to open up a new Consulate General.

But that was about it.

"My understanding is that they were working towards trying to make some big announcements, but the Pacific is really wisening up on China," Mr Pryke said.

"They're not just taking any offer given to them now.

"China hasn't found the door to the Pacific quite as open as it has been in the past, so maybe they just ran out of time to get to a deal."

Mr Pryke said this was part of a continuing trend across the region, with Pacific leaders becoming more adept at managing China's engagement in the region.

"As they've approached their debt thresholds, as they've really seen the outcomes of these loans, the quality of the infrastructure - some of which I have to stress is good - the Pacific leaders have really wisened up."

Questions also remain over what the Belt and Road memorandums, which have been signed by several Pacific countries including New Zealand, actually mean in practice.

"It's very vague, and it doesn't really commit us to anything except cooperation. And that's fine by us," Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu told the ABC's Pacific Beat programme.

Either way, the announcements were soon overshadowed by much bigger pledges from Western nations during the main summit.

A different kind of power play

One of the key pledges made at APEC will see Australia, the US, Japan, and New Zealand join forces to help fund a major electrification project in Papua New Guinea.

Details on how much this will cost are still emerging, but Australia will pitch in around $25 million in the project's first year, while New Zealand has pledged $20m on the project.

Only an estimated 13 percent of Papua New Guineans currently have reliable electricity, and the project is aiming to boost that figure up to 70 percent by 2030.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill displays a document for electricity projects signed by Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill displays a document for electricity projects signed by Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: AFP

US Vice-President Mike Pence's announcement that the US would partner up with PNG and Australia to redevelop the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island also turned heads.

In August, China had showed interest in setting up a port facility on Manus Island, according to reports in The Australian at the time.

Australia and PNG announced they would work together to redevelop the base at the beginning of this month, but the announcement that the US would also be involved came as a surprise to many at APEC.

"It's a real affront to China's strategic ambitions in the Pacific Islands region - but again, the devil remains in the detail," Mr Pryke said.

"This port had great strategic significance in World War II.

"It can have significant strategic impact, but it really depends how much they're going to invest in this facility."

Misgivings from local Manusians will also need to be overcome. The island's Governor this week slammed Australia for not consulting with him on the base redevelopment, which he said was unnecessary.

China 'left flat-footed'

Australia promised infrastructure upgrades to Vanuatu's police force, and support for the training of more than 300 new police recruits.

This is significant as Vanuatu is aiming to have 900 police force members by 2020, but budgeting issues have made reaching that recruitment target difficult.

The Vanuatu Daily Post reported the country has just 560 police force members, serving a population of around 280,000 people spread across 83 islands.

However, questions remain over how Vanuatu will manage the ongoing costs of maintaining a much larger police force.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also announced a new Pacific-Australia card, which he said would make it easier for political leaders as well as business and sports people from the Pacific to travel to Australia.

A raft of new scholarships and partnerships between churches and schools in Australia and the Pacific were pledged.

And this is on top of the announcement earlier this month that Australia would create a $2 billion infrastructure bank, offering discounted loans to Pacific nations.

"I think [China] were left flat-footed by the announcements that came out of these Western partners," Mr Pryke said.

"While the dust is still settling, China missed an opportunity to really cement themselves as the new major power in the Pacific region."