Xi pushes to spread China's influence in the Pacific

Above: Villagers in traditional costume going through security screening at an event attended by China's President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby yesterday. Right: Papuans waiting to welcome President Xi, who is the first Chinese leader to make a state v
Above: Villagers in traditional costume going through security screening at an event attended by China's President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: Villagers in traditional costume going through security screening at an event attended by China's President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby yesterday. Right: Papuans waiting to welcome President Xi, who is the first Chinese leader to make a state v
Above: Papuans waiting to welcome President Xi, who is the first Chinese leader to make a state visit to Papua New Guinea.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Chinese President meets leaders of eight Pacific island states ahead of Apec summit

PORT MORESBY • President Xi Jinping made a push to expand China's influence in the Pacific yesterday, holding a forum with the leaders of eight small island countries in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

But Chinese officials barred most media, including reporters from the Pacific, from the forum in the PNG capital Port Moresby at which Mr Xi met leaders from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, as well as the host nation.

Mr Xi was the first world leader to arrive in Port Moresby ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit this weekend which PNG is also hosting.

The Pacific island nation rolled out the red carpet for the first state visit by a Chinese leader, with a military guard of honour and a royal gun salute to welcome Mr Xi.

After leaving the airport, the Chinese President's motorcade drove along a Chinese-funded repaved highway past a boulevard adorned with the flags of both countries. He was then met by dozens of people from various PNG tribes sporting parrot feathers, possum pelts and seashell necklaces.

Across the capital, images of the Chinese leader have been beaming down from billboards.

In a symbolic show of the Asian giant's growing influence in the region, Mr Xi unveiled a plaque marking the new "Independence Boulevard" outside PNG's Parliament.

Mr Xi also attended the opening of a PNG and China friendship school, where he and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill pledged to further enhance bilateral cooperation.

While addressing the cheering crowds, Mr Xi said China and PNG have witnessed closer people-to-people, cultural and educational exchanges in recent years, as well as vigorous development of cooperation among local governments.

PNG has already signed up to Beijing's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to enhance sea and land trade routes between the Middle Kingdom and Eurasia.

Mr Xi later held talks with the leaders of the Pacific island nations. But to the disappointment of many of the journalists there to report on China's role in the region, Chinese officials barred access to all media, apart from a small list of outlets, citing space and security concerns.

China's efforts to win friends in the resource-rich Pacific push have been watched warily by the traditionally influential powers in the region - Australia, New Zealand and the United States - which were not invited to yesterday's forum.

Chinese officials said they had not been informed of the host's plans and had to limit media numbers.

Ms Lina Keapu from PNG's Sunday Chronicle newspaper said it was a "slap in the face".

She added: "As the local media, we should be there covering it and getting the news to our national public."

China's efforts to win friends in the resource-rich Pacific push have been watched warily by the traditionally influential powers in the region - Australia, New Zealand and the United States - which were not invited to yesterday's forum.

In contrast, US President Donald Trump is skipping the two-day Apec meeting, sending Vice-President Mike Pence in his place. Mr Pence, however, is leaving after one day and staying in Australia rather than the dusty and notoriously crime-ridden PNG capital.

Critics say Mr Trump's absence has left the door ajar for China to bolster its regional influence.

 
 
 

Setting the scene for a potential clash in Port Moresby, a senior US official speaking ahead of the summit accused Beijing of engaging in "dangerous debt diplomacy throughout the region". Several countries in the Asia-Pacific region have accepted loans from Beijing for infrastructure financing that are "not transparent", added the official, who declined to be named.

The high-profile trade war between the world's two largest economies - as well as tit-for-tat tariff measures - will also serve as a backdrop to what could be a tense gathering.

Last-minute wrangling over World Trade Organisation reform was understood to have delayed efforts to put together a joint foreign ministers' statement, laying bare the divisions between the main players.

"We are living in difficult times with rising trade tensions, rising protectionism and that, needless to say, is reflected in the discussion we're having here in Port Moresby," Mr Donald Campbell, co-chairman of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council think-tank, told Agence France-Presse.

"It's going to be very difficult to get a ministerial statement for leaders that has consensus in it as a result of that."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2018, with the headline 'Xi pushes to spread China's influence in the Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe