Don’t Underestimate China’s Political Influence on Papua New Guinea

By Takahiro Motegi —

Downtown Port Moresby, Papau New Guinea. Source: Wikimedia user Wikiedit.Ray, used under a creative commons license.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) turned down the United States, Japan, and Australia in November 2018, when they offered to build a submarine cable network connecting PNG to the global network. The offer was expected to be a strong alternative to Chinese technology giant Huawei’s proposal. Huawei’s plan will provide PNG domestic connectivity with 3,390 miles of cable, of which around 60 percent has been completed. It also involves $198 million in loans from the Exim Bank of China. By comparison Australia’s plan included paying for the projected $101 million for an internet cable from a Sydney broadband hub to PNG. It was unsurprising that PNG decided to stick with Huawei’s plan, not only because of its timing — including Huawei expanding its business to PNG in 2009 — and funding, but also China’s tighter political ties with PNG in recent years.

The signs of a closer diplomatic, political, and military relationship between Beijing and Port Moresby are clearly evident and should be monitored closely by Tokyo and Washington. First, PNG officially expressed its support to China’s position over the South China Sea issues just before the arbitral tribunal ruling in the case with the Philippines was issued in The Hague in July 2016. PNG was one of only two countries in the region, the other being Vanuatu, to back China when the arbitration was still ongoing, though PNG has not reiterated that stance since then. Second, Taiwan’s representative office in PNG had to change its name to one without “the Republic of China” due to diplomatic pressure from mainland China in May 2018. Third, a Chinese media interview with Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of PNG in 2018 revealed he has visited China 12 times since he took office in 2011 (for comparison he has only visited Japan 4 times). Understanding why Chinese influence remains strong requires unpacking the growing political ties between them.

When Prime Minister O’Neill made an official visit to China in July 2016 under the banner of supporting China’s position on the South China Sea issues, President Xi Jinping of China promised to back up PNG’s desire to host the APEC summit in 2018. Afterwards, O’Neill expressed his gratitude to Beijing that China was the “first country” to express its support for PNG to host APEC. During O’Neill’s visit, both governments also signed seven agreements, which included the loan agreement for the “national submarine Fiber-optic cable project”.

Just after PNG became the “first country” in the Pacific Islands region to sign the “Belt and Road Initiative Memorandum of Understanding,” and also became a member country of Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, O’Neill re-visited Beijing in June 2018. In this visit, the China Aid 2018 APEC Security Network Project was said to be one of the important achievements when the handover ceremony was held just before the APEC summit. The highest ranking PNG police officer who attended the ceremony said that, “The security network will not only provide security for the leaders of APEC economies to attend the meeting, but also make an important tribute to the construction of a safe city for the new future of PNG,” which implies that the security networks might be related to China’s surveillance system.

The APEC summit in PNG in 2018 turned into an opportunity for western countries to learn the depth of China’s influence in the country. In a venue built with extensive support from China, the 2018 APEC summit turned into the first “no-joint-statement APEC” reportedly because China successfully interfered in issuing a statement which included the clause, “We agree to fight protectionism including all unfair trade practices,” though there was also a backlash from western and other island countries against China’s “tantrum diplomacy”.

The summit between President Xi and Prime Minister O’Neill on the sidelines of APEC also highlighted the institutionalization of their developing ties, when they declared an upgrade of the China-PNG relationship into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which is defined as, “cooperation in various aspects such as macro strategy,”  from a Strategic Partnership which they had agreed in 2014. In keeping with the strategic component, both countries also signed a Military Cooperation Agreement in July 2018, following a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – Navy hospital ship’s second visit to Port Moresby. It is unclear the depth of military cooperation they have, however PNG defense minister Fabian Pok expressed appreciation that, “China made important contributions to the infrastructure construction and personnel capacity improvement of the PNG Defense Force,” at the handover ceremony of Chinese military vehicles to PNG in 2017. China also has some influence in training PNG military personnel. The PLA started to accept two PNG Defense Force military officers for training every year since 2002, and the number increased to five in 2004. Scholar Xu Jin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argues that China can train military officials as well as influence political elites to establish “strategic pivot countries” allowing Beijing to exploit the relations with them to expand its influence in the region.

China’s efforts to build the capacity of PNG defense force should be welcomed. However, if those efforts are related to a Chinese desire for naval access arrangements in the region, then it becomes a sensitive issue for Japan and the United States. Liang Jiarui of Liaocheng University China, and Gao Wensheng of Tianjin Normal University, assert that, “China should speed up efforts to establish strategic pivot ports in the region to carry forward the 21st century Maritime Silk Road”, and “Moresby (PNG), Apia (Samoa), Suva (Fiji) and Luganville (Vanuatu) can become strategic pivot ports,” each of which possesses military value as well. It is unclear whether these reports reflect views of the PLA or the Chinese Communist Party, but the port in Vanuatu  identified as potential Chinese military base  — Luganville — is exactly the one recommended by these scholars as a strategic pivotal port, a pinpoint version of the strategic pivot country.

All these developments have not gone unnoticed. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission expressed its concerns about China’s expanding influence over the Pacific Islands by publishing a report in June 2018 stating that, “China has become one of the major players in the region, well ahead of the United States in most areas.” The U.S. government and its allies have taken steps to address the imbalance. In November 2018, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the United States will join Australia in redeveloping the Lombrum Naval base in PNG. Japan has also upgraded its engagement with PNG, Prime Minster Shinzo Abe announced at Moresby a range of support for PNG, including economic cooperation in such areas as education, infrastructure, fire trucks, and the Bougainville referendum, as well as capacity building assistance by the Ministry of Defense of Japan.

China’s efforts seem to be succeeding. PNG or even the entire Pacific Islands region might become a significant hole for the Indo-Pacific strategy, if the United States and Japan do not devote more political resources to them.

Mr. Takahiro Motegi is a Visiting Fellow with the Japan Chair at CSIS. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent those of the Government of Japan.


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