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Papua New Guinea leader hopes for security wins from China visit

The Pacific island country’s prime minister will also attend the PNG-Asia investment conference in Hong Kong.

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By Harlyne Joku for BenarNews

2023.10.09, Port Moresby

Updated October 9, 2023, 10:04 a.m. ET

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister said he will visit China this month and hopes to return with investment pledges, progress on security cooperation and membership of the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Prime Minister James Marape will meet China’s Premier Li Qiang and President Xi Jinping in Beijing as part of the four-day visit that includes addressing the first Papua New Guinea-Asia Investment Conference in Hong Kong on Oct. 16, his office said Monday.

“I expect practical outcomes from my discussions with President Xi and Premier Li, with a primary focus on commerce, trade, and investment, alongside security cooperation,” Marape said in a statement.

Chinese investors, Marape said, will be offered land as part of a plan that hopes to encourage them to establish manufacturing plants in Papua New Guinea for the forestry, fisheries and coffee industries.

Papua New Guinea, home to more than nine million people, is endowed with mineral and other resources but grapples with challenges such as corruption, lack of roads and basic healthcare in many regions as well as frequent tribal violence.

The country is a focus of China-U.S. rivalry in the Pacific and earlier this year signed a defense cooperation with the United States that would give the U.S. military wide-ranging access to six air and sea ports. It’s unclear what form of security cooperation with China could emerge from Marape’s visit to the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden met Pacific island leaders including Marape last month in Washington, the second U.S.-Pacific islands summit in a year, highlighting the intensifying China-U.S. competition in the Pacific.

The logo of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is seen at its headquarters in Beijing on June 15, 2023. [Jade Gao/AFP]

Beijing’s influence with economically-lagging Pacific island nations has increased over the past two decades through a combination of trade, infrastructure and aid as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, gain allies in international institutions and advance its economic and security interests.

U.S. interest in the Pacific was galvanized in early 2022 after Beijing and the Solomon Islands signed a security pact that the U.S. and allies such as Australia fear could lead to a Chinese military presence in a region they consider crucial to their defense and security.

Marape said he expects numerous agreements to be finalized following his meeting with China’s premier including for a feasibility study on a possible free-trade agreement and in education, infrastructure development and aviation.

He said Papua New Guinea’s membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – China’s answer to U.S.-dominated institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – will be formalized during the visit.

China established the AIIB in 2015 to meet what it said was Asia’s vast need for infrastructure financing.

More than 100 countries have joined, including wealthy nations such as Australia and Germany along with developing states in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. Papua New Guinea was approved as a prospective member in May 2018.

The bank, however, has been criticized for allegedly serving the Chinese government’s interests to the detriment of other member nations. In June, its director general of communications, Canadian national Bob Pickard, said he had resigned from the lender because of its “toxic” culture.

“The Bank is dominated by Communist Party members and also has one of the most toxic cultures imaginable. I don’t believe that my country’s interests are served by its AIIB membership,” Pickard said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The Beijing-headquartered lender in July said an internal review had found no evidence that supported Pickard’s allegations.

Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Treasury Ian Ling-Stuckey said he met with China’s ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Zeng Fanhua, and other embassy officials last week to finalize details of the China visit including AIIB membership.

“The focus of my work is to secure additional cheaper funding to PNG,” Ling-Stuckey said in a statement on the weekend. “Chinese interest rates are currently below those in [the] U.S. and Australia and even from many of our multilateral partners.”

“China is our second largest trading partner,” Ling-Stuckey said. “Personally, three of my grandparents come from China, and it will be good to visit again after a gap of nearly two decades. We are putting in the work to make this visit as productive as possible.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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