China and Papua New Guinea have agreed to upgrade their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership and work more closely together on projects under the Beijing-led “Belt and Road Initiative” South China Morning Post reports referring to Chinese state media.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in Port Moresby on Friday ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.
“China is willing to work with Papua New Guinea to enhance mutual trust, deepen cooperation and promote bilateral relations to a new comprehensive strategic partnership,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
“This is not only a manifestation of the traditional friendship between the two countries, but also a powerful impetus for further cooperation,” he said.
Papua New Guinea established diplomatic relations with China in 1976, a year after gaining independence from Australia, and the two nations established a strategic partnership in 2014.
“In recent years, high-level exchanges between the two countries have resulted in mutual trust,” Xi said, adding that China’s investment in Papua New Guinea would continue to grow in the future.
Beijing’s investment in the country in 2017 – mostly in infrastructure projects such as roads and ports – almost tripled year on year to 2.46 billion dollars, from 860 million dollars in 2016, according to data compiled by China Global Investment Tracker.
Speaking on his first visit as president to the Pacific nation, Xi said that Beijing and Port Moresby also agreed to work more together on belt and road projects, the name given to China’s ambitious plan to develop infrastructure and trade routes across Asia and beyond.
“Both sides should strengthen the development strategy within the framework of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and should initiate free-trade agreement negotiations as soon as possible,” Xi said.
Papua New Guinea agreed to join the 900 billion dollars development programme earlier this year and Beijing is keen to promote it amid an international backlash.
China Construction Bank, China Railway Group, China Railway Construction and China National Building Material are all working on belt and road projects in Papua New Guinea.
“The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ will help strengthen connectivity and infrastructure in Pacific island countries,” Xinhua quoted O’Neill as saying.
“Papua New Guinea will actively participate in it and is willing to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with China in many areas,” he said, adding that his country would also “support dialogue among Pacific island countries”.
O’Neill also pledged Papua New Guinea’s diplomatic support for China, saying the country “will unswervingly pursue the one-China policy”.
China’s interests in the Pacific stretch beyond economic concerns. Seven Pacific Islands nations officially recognise Beijing as their diplomatic ally, while six others – Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu – recognise Taiwan.
Beijing has ramped up the pressure on Taiwan – including staging a campaign to poach its allies – since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of the self-ruled island in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle. It now has just 17 diplomatic allies around the world.
Baron Waqa, the president of Nauru, publicly branded China’s envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum in September a “bully” after the official tried to speak ahead of state leaders and then stormed out of the auditorium after being refused.
Gary Juffa, governor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro province, said China’s move to boost relations was driven by strategic considerations.
“The battle for the Pacific is being fought here by the West and China,” he said. “This is the most strategic location as it has one foot in Asia and one in the Pacific. Anyone who wants access to [natural] resources, this is the place.”