21 November 2018
Seven years ago Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state, warned of her country’s growing competition with China, and pinpointed a nation over which the two powers seemed to be coming into conflict: Papua New Guinea. “[The Chinese] have brought all of the leaders of these small Pacific nations to Beijing, wined them and dined them,” she told a Senate committee.
Last weekend, when global leaders descended on PNG for this year’s APEC summit, the world learnt that Clinton was right. The summit featured a torrid display of open rivalries, in which China and the United States sparred and urged other countries to take sides. In the end, there appeared to be a decisive loser: China, whose self-defeating conduct did little to improve its appeal as a Pacific partner.
The strains in PNG emerged even before the summit started. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Port Moresby on Friday morning – earlier than necessary – to shore up ties with PNG and smaller Pacific island nations. He was greeted by a military band, traditional dancers, a billboard of him shaking hands with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, and rows of red flags lining a new China-funded six-lane boulevard. But the mood soon turned.
At a ceremony to open the boulevard, local reporters placed microphones and mobile phones near a speaker to record Xi’s speech but Chinese officials removed the devices, insisting that only Chinese media could record it. Next, Xi went to open a China-funded school. Local reporters were barred, and they watched as a busload of Chinese media was waved inside. A PNG official also apparently had a run-in with Chinese security at the school. Finally, Xi held an event for leaders of PNG and other small Pacific states which support China in its tussle for recognition over Taiwan, and local and international media were again not allowed in.
These incidents were widely reported in PNG and were seen, as ABC News noted, as a “slap in the face”.
Pacific states have long been exploited, belittled and overlooked by larger powers jostling for influence in the region, and they tend to be particularly sensitive to slights. Aware of this, Xi published a statement in PNG’s two main newspapers before his visit, promising to treat the country “with respect and as equals” and insisting that “China believes that all countries are equal, regardless of their size”.
But the Chinese delegation’s conduct at APEC undermined Xi’s assurances. Their behaviour worsened on Saturday, when four Chinese officials were reportedly removed by security after visiting the office of PNG’s foreign minister, Rimbink Pato, to discuss the final wording of the communiqué. According to ABC News, the officials barged into Pato’s room when they were denied a meeting. Security was called and the officials were forced to leave. China has denied the report, and Pato’s office said the incident was “not an issue for PNG at all”.
China’s attempts to deepen ties with PNG had already begun to cause angst in the Pacific nation, but these events added to local frustrations about the pace and manner with which the relationship has developed. A journalist at PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper, Franklin Kolma, told me that Chinese officials “acted as if this was their country, in a manner that made us feel inadequate”.
“Our PNG Foreign Affairs officers also did very little and could do very little as we all know how much of a part China played in prepping the country for APEC,” he said. “All in all, these tensions and feeling of ownership over PNG by Chinese delegates, in my opinion, played a big role in the historic disarray and non-completion of communiqué.”
On Saturday, Australia and the US announced their own efforts to extend relations with PNG, including plans to develop a naval base on Manus Island. With Port Moresby awash in red, this must have infuriated, if not embarrassed, the Chinese visitors.
The summit ended on Sunday without a joint communiqué for the first time – a sorry stalemate as China and the US openly attacked each other. It was a worrying sign that the competition between these two rivals is becoming increasingly hostile. As O’Neill put it (and as Clinton predicted), the failure to agree on a communiqué was due to “the two big giants in the room”. “The entire world is worried,” he said.
But the sideshow, which saw the two powers jostling for regional influence, ended in defeat for China. PNG officials and the public may have mixed feelings about the new US-Australian base on Manus Island, but they will now be less keen to see the flags there fly red. On Tuesday, PNG Foreign Minister Pato told Fairfax Media that China would present “challenges” as a new donor country, and that Australia remained a “partner of choice”.
When it emerged that APEC would end without a communiqué, Australian PM Scott Morrison and New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern reportedly assisted O’Neill to prepare a chairman’s statement. So the summit ended with a whimper, but some quiet progress occurred when the giants were no longer in the room.