Foreign Affairs

Papua New Guinea’s APEC: burden or opportunity?

APEC’s theme is harnessing inclusive opportunities, but is Papua New Guinea leaving its people behind? Laura Walters reports on the issues plaguing this year’s host.

Papua New Guinea promises hosting APEC will mean lasting improvements for the country and its citizens, but that’s being called into question as the Government fails to deliver on core services for its people.

Papua New Guinea has been plagued with controversies ahead of hosting its first APEC summit in the capital of Port Moresby.

Since winning the right to host the massive summit, with world leaders like Xi Jinping, Mike Pence, and Jacinda Ardern, the country has poured about $270 million into its preparations.

But this comes as the smallest and poorest developing economy in the APEC group faces record debt levels, a third of its eight million population living below the poverty line, and the resurgence of old diseases like polio, tuberculosis, and increasing cases of HIV AIDS.

APEC’s theme for 2018 is: Harnessing inclusive opportunities, Embracing the digital future.

But there has been unrest in Papua New Guinea by those who don’t believe the Government is walking the talk.

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the event will help his country gain the world’s attention, and increase opportunities for trade.

When asked about the issues surrounding Papua New Guinea's hosting, Ardern said it was up to each nation to decide how they chose to host.

“There are expectations that come with hosting but it is ultimately up to them,” she said.

Ardern wished Papua New Guinea luck, and said she hoped the summit’s location would be a chance to discuss Pacific issues, like growth and development, and climate change.

State of play

Papua New Guinea is the first Pacific country to host APEC, and when it put its hand up to take on the responsibility back in 2013, the economy was in much better shape.

The resource-rich country had high hopes for the economic benefits from its plans to become a regional energy hub to trickle down to its people. But many, particularly those in the highlands, had not seen the economic benefits.

RNZ International correspondent Johnny Blades said each time he visited the capital of Port Moresby the skyline grew, and new roads were being built.

But in the highlands, roads were broken, people were struggling, and many were still feeling the effects of February’s magnitude-7.5 earthquake.

Blades said while the government had spent a lot of money on APEC, other basic services had gone backwards.

Papua New Guinea’s fees-free education policy has led to teachers being underpaid - or not paid - leading to a shortage of staff, and classrooms over capacity. 

Healthcare was hard to access, and there had been a re-emergence of old diseases like polio, tuberculosis, and HIV AIDS, as well as dengue fever and malaria.

Visiting delegations were urged to get a certificate to prove they had been vaccinated for polio, or risk being turned away at the border.

There are also concerns about power and internet holding up to demand when world leaders and delegations descend on Port Moresby.

Blades said the government acknowledges the gaps but says it will open up the country for trade and investment opportunities, which will help Papua New Guineans.

Papua New Guinea’s issues with corruption has also be raised in the lead-up to APEC.

There has been criticism from activists in the country, as well as opposition MPs, and the international community about the level of corruption in the country, and lack of open tender processes when it comes to major contracts.

And last month, Papua New Guinea imported a fleet of 40 luxury Maserati Quattroporte and Bentley Flying Spur V8s to be used by leaders.

This resulted in widespread condemnation, but O’Neill said the country would not end up out of pocket, with the cars being bought by private owners and businesses post-APEC.

Help from the region

Ardern will not be travelling in one of the luxury cars during her time in Papua New Guinea.

But experts on the region say one of the biggest dangers was it emboldened and embedded the degree of corruption that existed in Papua New Guinea.

By helping, and turning a blind eye to the negatives, other governments in the region were propping up a government that was failing its people.

New Zealand had given Papua New Guinea $15 million worth of support, mainly focused on things like training and security assistance by New Zealand Police and New Zealand Defence Force, as well as building resilience to cybercrime.

Ardern said the focus was on helping the country meet its security obligations during the events, not on things like infrastructure projects.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Winston Peters also announced a joint commitment with Australia to boost cybercrime resilience in the Pacific.

But New Zealand’s contribution to APEC pales in comparison to $129 million investment from Australia.

Some have suggested Australia’s increased spending and engagement in Papua New Guinea is an effort to counter China’s influence in the country.

But China has continued to step up its efforts in Papua New Guinea, building highways – which some say were unnecessary – and convention centres used for APEC.

Bus stops sport the China Aid emblem, and the roads built with Chinese money are lined with the country's flag.

Chinese officials have also reportedly been placed in key security and policing roles.

Meanwhile, China President Xi Jinping has travelled to Papua New Guinea for the events – a marked contrast to the absence of US President Donald Trump.

NZ International Business Council chair Stephen Jacobi said Xi would host a banquet with leaders of Pacific nations, who were invited as APEC observers this year.

Amid rising concerns over Pacific countries’ rising debt to China, Jacobi said he expected Xi to use his time in Port Moresby as an opportunity to offer further aid and development deals.

“It’s inevitably going to come up and he’s going to offer his largess to them and to their economies, and they’re probably going to accept with open arms.”

The issue of Chinese aid in the Pacific is expected to be a sub-plot during APEC, and New Zealand will take the chance to again talk about its Pacific reset. But the issue of China’s growing influence in the Pacific is unlikely to explicitly come up during formal APEC meetings.

An opportunity?

Papua New Guinea seems to be on the map for all the wrong things, including crime and corruption.

While APEC is focused on inclusion, the country has high rates of domestic violence and a lack of female economic empowerment. There is a rural-urban divide, and many don’t have access to the “digital future” with the country’s high ICT rates.

But Ardern said APEC was an opportunity to raise these issues and move towards improving the lives and wellbeing of Papua New Guineans.

During her time in Port Moresby, Ardern will officially open the redevelopment of Gordons Market – the biggest fresh produce market in the Pacific, run mainly by women.

New Zealand has put $7 million into the development of the market, and it would be a chance for a female leader to talk about women’s empowerment.

Ardern and Peters will also make several further announcements of projects targeted at helping Papua New Guinea citizens.

Foreign policy expert, and this year’s Kippenberger Visiting Professor in Strategic Studies, Dewi Fortuna Anwar said hosting international events was always a double-edged sword.

“For hosting big, international events, it’s a big responsibility, and is also prestigious, and usually that gives the country a good incentive to clean up its act, whether physically or in terms of crime, or politics - people want to show their best face,” she said.

At the same time, it could create tremendous pressure if the country were not equipped.

When Papua New Guinea said it was ready to host, the world had to take it at its word, but the country should not be too proud to ask for help.

“But on the whole it should be good for it,” Anwar said.

“Sometimes the top leadership needs a kind of excuse to force changes, to force reforms in the country. And the opposition leader and civil societies can say we will show you up if you don’t improve; if you don’t get your act together.

“So we would hope it would be a turn for the better.”

Jacinda Ardern will arrive in Papua New Guinea on Saturday, returning to New Zealand on Sunday. Peters will also be present for the APEC events, and Trade Minister David Parker hosted a meeting on the fringes of APEC, focussing on the trade for all agenda, with his counterparts from Chile and Canada.

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