- A mini Pacific Game of Thrones will be going down this weekend as Papua New Guinea plays host to 21 nations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby.
- Australia and China in particular will be vying for influence and they already have the checkbooks out.
- China’s President Xi Jinping is already on the ground in Papua New Guinea for a state visit.
- But Bridi Rice, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Australian Council of International Development and a former Australian government anti-money-laundering adviser to Papua New Guinea says the country needs genuine partners, not handouts.
On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe on an historic visit to the northern Australian city of Darwin that Japanese forces attacked more than 75 years ago
Just a few hours earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down for a state visit with the Pacific neighbour where Japan and Australia met in a bloody struggle across the highlands that became known as the New Guinea campaign.
Xi stepped onto a red carpet at Port Moresby’s Jackson International Airport on Friday as Chinese flags flew across the Papua New Guinean capital to welcome him and China’s commitment to this resource rich, but socially impoverished Pacific nation.
While Jackson Airport is surrounded by billboards for Chinese banks, the airport is named for John F. Jackson, a pilot and squadron leader who died in combat 75 years ago. He was one of approximately 7,000 Australians who died in the New Guinea campaign during World War II.
This history is part of the complex backdrop to the APEC summit and it’s the history that Australia’s new Prime Minister Scott Morrison was happy to lean on when he called the Pacific Australia’s “backyard.”
Morrison said in his first landmark Pacific policy address, that Australia will commit anew to the Pacific, setting up a multibillion-dollar infrastructure bank to fund projects in the region and appointing a series of new diplomatic posts.
“Australia will step up in the Pacific and take our engagement with the region to a new level,” the prime minister said last week.
Now, a new contest is opening up across the Pacific from Port Moresby to Tahiti. The weapon of choice: money and the major players from the US to China, Japan, and Australia will face off this weekend.
The Pacific’s annual regional economic summit takes place in the heart of APEC’s poorest member country, Papua New Guinea, which has itself become the keystone in an accelerating struggle for influence.
Xi will tour some of China’s headline gifts and investments – including the multimillion dollar APEC house – ahead of the weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill hoping for further commitments from China and its former colonial power and closest neighbour, Australia.
As Xi Jinping makes his maiden state visit as Chinese president Canberra will be watching closely.
The state of regional competition on Papua New Guinea at the time of APEC is best characterised by an anecdote retold by Dr. Graeme Smith, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
Meeting a military official on Manus Island, a former US staging base and, more recently, the site of an Australian immigration detention center, Smith says the official pointed out the impressive runways now overgrown by vegetation.
If Australia is unwilling to invest, then we can always turn to our new friends, the official suggested.
Australia has it seems, awoken to the idea of the challenges presented by a Chinese base operating 60 minutes flight time to its major northern cities.
Consequently, Canberra this month put its hand up to back the Manus project, part of what analysts see as a push to re-assert its dominance in the South Pacific as Beijing seeks a more prominent role.
“The Manus Island port was a big concern for us,” a senior US diplomatic source told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
“It was feasible Chinese military vessels could have used the port so we are very happy that Australia will fund the re-development.”
Australia is reportedly ready to make the verbal agreement formal sometime over the weekend.
After five years of relentless cuts to Australia’s aid program, regional aid experts have cautiously welcomed the turnaround.
Bridi Rice, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Australian Council of International Development said that the admission by the Prime Minister that “too often” we have taken our Pacific neighbours for granted is right on the money.
“The announcement of plans to deepen Australia’s ties is welcome,” Rice said.
“But for Australia to continue to build influence as a trusted development partner and foster confidence, stability, and sustainability in the Asia-Pacific, the Australian development cooperation program must have the development interests of our partners at its heart.”
Rice, the Australian Government’s former senior anti-money laundering adviser to the Papua New Guinea government said however, that the development challenges of the region cannot be solved by money alone.
“A quick fix expenditure and political point scoring at the cost of long term development initiatives won’t generate development outcomes or foreign policy wins for Australia,” Rice told Business Insider.
This year’s APEC was supposed to showcase Papua New Guinea’s ascension onto the world stage.
Prime minister O’Neill said it would put New Guinea “on the map.”
What it has highlighted so far is less about infrastructural achievement and more about what can slip through the cracks when the focus shifts from hard assistance to soft power.
“For Australia’s development cooperation program to be a critical soft power tool requires more than just infrastructure allocations, it also requires tough discussions to be had around issues of corruption, governance, natural resource protection, civil society, human-rights and associated expenditure on the soft infrastructure that enables development.”
New Guinea is one of only five countries experiencing the return of polio. It faces endemic problems including corruption, tribal and urban violence, preventable disease outbreaks, a flawed currency and an ailing economy.
According to Rice, also a current La Trobe University research candidate on Australia’s aid program in Papua New Guinea, inclusive infrastructure investment may be welcome, but other reactive expenditure on short-term public diplomacy is simply ineffective.
Such efforts in an attempt to increase Australia’s profile and influence in the region come to nothing, when the have no long-term benefits.”
“(New infrastructure investment) should not come at the cost of what we know works – that is – long-term relationships, deep cultural understanding, and development cooperation which works primarily in the interests of the countries where Australia works,” Rice told Business Insider.
Speaking to an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the strategic effectiveness of Australia’s aid program on Thursday, Rice proposed that Australia can “walk and chew gum at the same time” when it comes to establishing a development cooperation program driven by values, and given the same level of strategic priority as defence within Australia’s foreign policy architecture.
“My friends and colleagues from Papua New Guinea are fighting for the future of their country,” Rice said.