ROWAN CALLICK | The Australian | Extracts
BEIJING - Asia is heading into typhoon season, symbolising the rivalries being unleashed in the region with a fervour not seen for decades.
The great global powers are jockeying to position themselves to emerge on top from the big annual summits they increasingly seek to game to demonstrate their authority and attractiveness.
An early indication of where Australia stands will come from the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations in California next Monday and Tuesday.
Foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and defence minister Marise Payne will meet US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary Jim Mattis.
While Washington probably will look for Canberra to commit to greater efforts to challenge China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, it also will want to hear from the Australians about the legislation they have introduced to guard against undue international influence at home.
Discussions are set to include China’s fast-growing involvement in the Pacific Islands region, which has tended to be viewed by Washington as an area best managed — in terms of ensuring its political inclinations lean towards the West — by Canberra, assisted by Wellington.
Yet it will prove difficult to counter President Xi Jinping’s success in pushing China towards a dominant regional position — despite having only North Korea as an ally and having no real friends in Asia or the Pacific — by the brilliant device of weaponising economic interdependence.
The central role played in the Pacific by China will be showcased at this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders’ summit, to be held in Port Moresby on 17-18 November.
China has spent $82 million on building and resurfacing roads in PNG’s capital ready for the summit, and $35 million on a new convention centre where the meeting will be held.
The permanent sign outside the latter is eloquent — its Chinese characters equalling the size of the building’s title in English, and with “center” spelled the American way when PNG normally follows Australian spellings.
China is paying about $16 million for a new Independence Boulevard Precinct, focused on a six-lane road providing grander, more direct access to the national parliament building.
Port Moresby Governor Powes Parkop has boasted that this new boulevard is “of no economic cost to the national government”. He describes it as “another milestone, setting a benchmark for PNG and reinforcing Port Moresby as the capital city”.
Last month PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill took a delegation of about 100, including 19 government officials and 50 PNG-based Chinese businesspeople, to Beijing on a chartered Air Niugini plane.
O’Neill said after meeting Xi in the Great Hall of the People: “Papua New Guinea is committed to deepening its strategic partnership with China, firmly pursuing the One China policy, highly praising and actively supporting President Xi Jinping’s great ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.”
He said he looked forward to increased “co-operation with China in the fields of economy and trade, investment, agriculture, tourism, and infrastructure”.
The PNG leader — the most successful and powerful politician to emerge in the nation after Michael Somare — was praised by Xi, who said “mutual political trust and mutually beneficial co-operation between the two sides have reached a new historical level”.
China, he said, “is willing to work together with Papua New Guinea” — which he described as “an influential Pacific Island country” — “to strengthen communication, deepen co-operation, expand exchanges and push bilateral relations to a new level”.
But O’Neill came under fire from former prime minister and now leading opposition MP, Mekere Morauta, who said mismanagement had turned PNG into a “hunting and gathering” economy. “The prime minister is now begging and selling the country into China’s lap,” he said.
Morauta said good roads in Port Moresby were being torn up “for the Chinese and his (O’Neill’s) friends to rebuild, just for APEC motorcades to ride on for one day”.
Meanwhile, he claimed, hospitals and health centres were running short of medicine, small PNG businesses were waiting for the government to pay its bills and some retired public servants were dying before their entitlements had been paid.
“We have signs of Chinese domination already, in the conduct of public finance and structure of the economy, and with Chinese doing the jobs of Papua New Guineans: driving trucks, bulldozers, tractors, sweeping roads, opening trade stores in every corner of the country. What is next?” Morauta said.
Xi was the first foreign leader to commit to attend the APEC summit in Port Moresby, and O’Neill announced during his speech to Fiji’s parliament during a recent visit that the Chinese President would host a summit of his own immediately before the APEC forum.
Xi was inviting the leaders of Pacific Island nations to attend this earlier event — though only, O’Neill said, the countries in the region that recognised Beijing diplomatically.
Six of the 14 island nations — Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands — instead recognise Taiwan.
O’Neill said he wants Pacific nations to participate actively during the APEC forum and to “highlight our issues to our Asian counterparts”.
“We want the Pacific to benefit from opportunities from Asia,” he said.
New Zealand released an unusually blunt defence policy paper this month that addressed the perceived threat from China.
Responding to O’Neill’s announcement of the Pacific summit in Port Moresby, Winston Peters — New Zealand’s acting prime minister, who is also the foreign minister — said: “It’s with great clarity you can see we live in a much more highly stressed area of geopolitical competition because we have left, some of us, a vacuum there which others would fill.”
Last week Australia forestalled plans by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to build an underwater internet cable linking PNG and Solomon Islands to Australia, and connecting outer Solomon Islands with the capital, Honiara. It signed a deal with those countries to pay two-thirds of the project cost of $136.6 million.
Canberra’s move to re-engage with the Pacific follows a period during which it had come under criticism for failing to develop a sufficient cadre of diplomats and others with knowledge of and networks in the islands region, including PNG.
Australia’s influence has diminished — not only because of the energy of China’s involvements but because of Canberra’s withdrawal from programs including broadcasts to the Pacific.