Pacific News Minute: Great Power Competition Escalates in Southwest Pacific

Nov 20, 2018

Vice President Mike Pence
Credit Gage Skidmore / Flickr

When the APEC Summit failed to agree on what’s usually a routine final statement over the weekend, much of the blame was leveled at differences between the United States and China on trade. But the two great powers were competing on many levels.

In September, we reported on Australia’s plans to develop a naval base on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea’s Admiralty Islands, in partnership with PNG. At the APEC summit in Port Moresby, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the United States will also participate in the project. The move was widely seen as an effort to forestall Chinese plans to develop the same port. There are no details on how much each partner is prepared to spend on the new base.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Port Moresby early, to help dedicate a new superhighway built by a Chinese construction company and paid for with Chinese loans. Billboards near the new Chinese-built convention center showed Xi shaking hands with PNG Prime Minster Peter O’Neill.

Earlier this year, Papua New Guinea signed on to China’s Belt and Road initiative – the same initiative that Vice President Pence denounced as a constrictive belt, and a one-way road. In another counter, the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand announced a massive project to develop PNG’s electrical capacity and deliver power to 70 percent of the country by 2030.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Credit Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Flickr

Originally, Vice President Pence planned to stay in the Australian city of Cairns and commute to the APEC Summit in Port Moresby by air. His hosts were gratified when he changed his mind and it turned out to be the Chinese who were accused of rudeness and bullying, when local reporters invited by the Papua New Guinea government to cover President Xi’s meeting with Pacific leaders were unceremoniously kicked out by the Chinese.