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16 October 2016

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When I was at med school I witnessed great skill and professionalism of the Chinese doctors who worked with the surgery team. They didn't speak much English but performed their duties well.

Once I observed surgery being conducted on an adult female who had TB affecting the covering of her heart. The Chinese doc cut open her chest and scraped out the pus and scar tissue around her heart on an old surgery table with a creaky anaesthetic machine.

Not sure how much PNGean health professionals can learn from the Chinese given the language barrier but the Chinese docs are trained to work in PNG conditions.

Despite myths to the contrary the Peace Corps banned anyone with a past or current connection to the CIA.

I doubt whether the Chinese share this sensibility.

Or are we just too suspicious of China?

I am sure it is with honorable intentions that Dr Zhang and others like him are providing assistance to the people of Papua New Guinea.

Perhaps an analogy would be the Motuan custom of Dava Kara or bride-price.

The obligations incurred by the groom in the accumulation of his bride- price continue for generations.

Bride-price does however foster friendship and goodwill between the clans and does provide status for the groom within his clan.

I sincerely hope this is the case in the relationship between China and Papua New Guinea.

In 1961 President John F Kennedy established the US Peace Corps, through which US citizens volunteered to do service overseas for a period of 2 years or more.

The declared aim of the program was to provide tangible aid and support to the developing world by providing access to US knowledge and expertise.

Of course, a subsidiary aim was to help entrench a friendly attitude towards the USA and, in so doing, try to foster deeper and stronger relations.

The Peace Corps was and is an example of the USA projecting its "soft power" in the hope of building an international network of friends and supporters. Such networks can have real value from an intelligence and foreign affairs viewpoint.

Thus, the decision by the Chinese government to place Chinese medical staff in in PNG to undertake a humanitarian mission is at once both commendable and valuable in itself as well as a way of building an enduring relationship with PNG in the long term.

China has become very adept at this form of diplomacy with, for example, extensive work being done in Africa such as the construction of roads, railways, hospitals, schools and other important infrastructure.

As has been the case for the USA, such good works have been accompanied by much more subtle developments, such as the establishment of Chinese controlled business interests within the countries receiving aid.

I am not suggesting that this type of aid activity is inherently subversive in nature, merely that it opens doors for other activities.

PNG's government needs to bear in mind the famous adage that "there is no such things a free lunch" when it comes to aid, humanitarian or otherwise.

Thus, when Justin Tkatchenko talks about China as "one of our closest friends in the international community", he ought to bear in mind the famous quote attributed to British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1784-1865): "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests".

As international tensions continue to rise in places like the South China Sea and the Ukraine, PNG may one day discover that their "close friend" will come looking for support or assistance at a most inconvenient moment.

Then we shall see what that friendship really amounts to.

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