Opportunities, APEC PNG and Samoa

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Alexander Rheeney

Google “apec papua new guinea” and you will get over 3 million entries in seconds, confirming how the 2018 APEC Leaders Summit now underway in Port Moresby has put the Pacific Islands’ largest nation in the global spotlight.

The leaders of the grouping’s 21 member economies are making their way to Port Moresby for the November 17-18 international conference. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was established in 1989 to create prosperity for the people of the region “through the promotion of balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure growth” and by accelerating regional economic integration. 

And for the first time, in the history of APEC, Pacific Island leaders have been invited to observe the summit proceedings. They will also meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the conference. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi is among leaders from eight Pacific Island states, which recognise Beijing diplomatically, and have flown to Port Moresby. The others are P.N.G, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue. 

The Pacific leaders will meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the regional economic summit in Port Moresby, where he is expected to make major announcements to advance China-Pacific relations.

Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told a press briefing recently that the President will deliver a keynote address during his meeting with the Pacific leaders.

“President Xi will deliver a keynote speech to expound on China’s policies toward the Pacific island countries based on the approach of upholding justice and pursuing shared interests and the principles of sincerity, real results, affinity and good faith, and announce major cooperation measures to support the island countries’ development,” he said.

With the increasing geopolitical significance of the Pacific region—somewhat forced by China’s increasing influence and growing development cooperation with Pacific Island nations—there appears to be renewed interest in the region by traditional partners Australia and the U.S.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced the establishment of a $2 billion infrastructure development fund, which would offer Pacific Island nations funding for infrastructure projects. Last month U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a bill to create a $60 billion International Development Finance Corporation, which would oversee strategic investments in developing countries including the Asia Pacific region. Commentators have welcomed the renewed interest in the region by Canberra and the Washington D.C., but warned of the impact of the “dollar diplomacy”. 

P.N.G, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue—are in the box seat to benefit from any expansion in China’s development cooperation and assistance—in part due to their strict adherence to the One China Policy.

Increasing concerns at Pacific Island nations getting into debt-traps—courtesy of loans from China—were recently challenged by Samoa’s Ambassador to China, Tapusalaia Terry Toomata.

“I understand what you have asked is about some people’s anxiety with China’s presence in the Pacific and in Samoa. But China has been in the Pacific since the mid-1970s, when it first started developing relations with Samoa and Fiji in 1975. 

“So, it is not new, and it’s not that China appeared there last year or the year before. China has been around for quite a while. So, this anxiety among other countries is unfounded.

“China’s infrastructure projects are normally visible to many people. China’s development advantage and strength is infrastructure that some of our donors don’t have. Some of them focus on areas like IT, HR, health and education but the strength of Chinese assistance is in infrastructure. And normally, some of our donors cannot undertake these projects,” he said, in an interview with Chinese publication Global Times.

The proposition being put forward by Samoa’s Ambassador to China will be embraced by the other Pacific Island nation governments. Today a lot more Pacific governments are doing business with the Chinese because often there are “no strings attached” to the development assistance.

However, the arrival of the Australians in this space—through its $2 billion infrastructure development fund as promised by its Prime Minister—introduces a new dynamic into these relationships. Will Samoa and other Pacific Island governments embrace this opportunity that awaits them? What are the opportunity costs that would come with signing up to this new Canberra-authored foreign policy? Will this new multi billion-dollar fund redefine the parameters of the Australia-Samoa bilateral relationship? What about the U.S. and where will it sit with its $60 billion International Development Finance Corporation?

It is definitely interesting times for the Pacific and we can only hope that our leaders— Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi and his colleagues—get the best deal for their citizens from an international economic talkfest, that at most times only benefits nations with larger economies. Even PNG is yet to maximise the benefits to grow its economy since it became a member of the regional economic grouping 25 years ago.

What do you think? Any way its Saturday and the end of another week. Have a blessed weekend Samoa! 

© Samoa Observer 2016

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