Papua New Guinea’s Foreign Minister has rejected the United States assessment that Chinese development money is “a constricting belt” and a “one-way road” for poor nations following a bruising APEC summit at which the two superpowers stared each other down.
Also on Tuesday, PNG police and soldiers reportedly stormed the country’s parliament, smashing windows and furniture as they demanded unpaid APEC bonuses.
Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato has told Fairfax Media that PNG, which has signed on to Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” infrastructure-building program, will continue to do whatever best solves his people’s problems.
Infrastructure development is increasingly being seen as a strategic battleground, with the US and Australia concerned about the amount of work China is doing in the Pacific and whether it has a sinister long-term intent.
Mr Pato also expressed caution on whether the redeveloped Manus Island naval base – which the US has announced it will help with alongside Australia – will eventually be used as a major strategic hub to project military power into the Pacific Ocean where China is increasingly flexing its muscle.
In a clear broadside against the Belt and Road Initiative, US Vice-President Mike Pence told an APEC audience at the weekend that his country offered “a better option” that wouldn’t imperil small nations’ sovereignty by saddling them with unmanageable debt.
“We don’t offer a constricting belt or one-way road,” he said.
Asked about these remarks, Mr Pato said: “Our own position is that we welcome every partner of PNG who would like to contribute to our national development aspirations. We welcome Chinese investment, we welcome USA investment. Of course Australia and NZ are traditional partners. We would not be seeking to engage in any conflict, as it were.”
While PNG has been praised for its smooth running of the APEC summit, witnesses reportedly said hundreds of police and military troops had protested at non-payment of their A$145 weekend bonus, with some breaking into parliament and damaging property.
A police spokesman said no one was hurt, according to Agence France-Presse.
China has become deeply involved in PNG and Pacific nations more broadly in recent years, building roads, bridges and wharves. Vanuatu on Monday confirmed it had also signed up to “Belt and Road”.
Mr Pato said China as a new donor country would present “challenges” and said that Australia remained a “partner of choice” for PNG, both on security and infrastructure.
“In the first instance, we’ll look to Australia but it will depend on the nature of the partnership that is required,” he said.
“We’re not in any way suggesting that China is bringing in development funding or building projects which undermine our systems. What we’re saying is the experience is a new one.”
Mr Pence also announced at the weekend the US would “partner” with PNG and Australia on developing the Manus Island naval base and appeared to link the Manus redevelopment to China.
But Mr Pato said there were still many details to be worked out about how the redevelopment would proceed – including the exact US involvement.
“Really it’s matter between Papua New Guinea and Australia because of our ongoing security partnership. Should the US want to come in and at what stage and to what extent, we will see the details when they come and talk to them about it,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we have to work on our own strategy as a sovereign nation and consult with our own people, particularly the Manus Island people.”