TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -Workers are putting the finishing touches on a Beijing-funded boulevard designed to showcase Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) capital to visiting world leaders at this month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Critics say the six-lane road - complete with wide, illuminated footpaths - is emblematic of a regional power play whereby donor countries vie for influence with show-stopper gifts, even as deeper problems plague the Pacific nation.
Australia, PNG’s traditional partner and a close Washington ally, is lifting aid and has plowed more than A$120 million ($86.5 million) into APEC, seeking to keep its sway over its neighbor.
Allan Bird, a parliamentarian and governor of PNG’s second largest province, said the boulevard outside parliament house had little practical benefit.
“Whatever the Chinese government spent on it, it could have been better spent somewhere else, buying medicine or building a school,” Bird told Reuters.
Bird said such gifts put pressure on traditional partners such as Australia to place less restrictions around donated funds and refrain from criticizing PNG’s own spending, which controversially includes buying 40 Maseratis and three Bentleys for APEC.
“There is no transparency around the use of public finances,” Bird said.
“The government can turn to other donors and tell them to ‘toe the line or else we’ll be quite happy to take Chinese money’. They use it as leverage.”
The PNG government did not respond to questions on funding for the boulevard project or other aspects of APEC. PNG has previously thanked China for its infrastructure funding and aid, and denied Beijing had asserted any diplomatic pressure.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said people should be supportive of the PNG government’s efforts to promote regional economic integration by hosting the summit.
“At the request of the Papua New Guinea side, China has proactively provided support and help for the hosting, which I can tell you has been warmly welcomed by the Papua New Guinea government and people,” Lu told reporters in response to Reuters questions, without providing a figure.
Speaking in Port Moresby on Wednesday, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, said in recent years his country had helped build more than 100 projects in PNG and other Pacific island nations, including schools and hospitals, which these countries had greatly appreciated.
“Whether China’s aid is good or not, the governments and people of those countries being aided have the most right to speak,” Wang said, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
If the region - pivotal in the Pacific battles of World War II - is a strategic treasure, PNG is one of its jewels.
It controls large swaths of ocean, is rich in mineral resources and is close to both U.S. military bases on the island of Guam and to Australia.
Formerly administered by Canberra, PNG has in recent years turned increasingly to China for financing as Beijing becomes a bigger player in the region.
PNG has the largest debt to China in the South Pacific, at almost $590 million, representing about one-quarter of its total external debt.
When world leaders arrive in the capital of Port Moresby for APEC, the contributions of donors will be obvious.
Australia will provide security personnel, naval patrol boats and a helicopter-docking ship; and the city will have an upgraded sewerage system care of the Japanese government.