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Diplomacy

Papua New Guinea ‘should learn from Malaysia’s Mahathir to avoid becoming a Chinese colony’

  • Opposition politician Gary Juffa says country should learn from example of Malaysian PM, who cancelled belt and road projects owing to debt fears
  • Critics warn country’s growing closeness to China is not benefitting local people and undermining its sovereignty
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 11:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 6:50am

Papua New Guinea must learn from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when it comes to countering China’s growing influence, a leading opposition politician has warned.

But Gary Juffa, the governor of Oro province and the leader of an opposition party in parliament, warned there was a risk of becoming a colony of China arguing that local people were not benefitting from infrastructure projects built under the Belt and Road Initiative.

China boosts ties with strategically important Papua New Guinea

The impoverished nation is in the global spotlight as leaders of 21 member countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) attend a summit in the capital Port Moresby.

China and Australia have been the primary aid donors to Papua New Guinea, as they compete for influence in the impoverished island nation by building much-needed infrastructure.

But Juffa, the leader of the People’s Movement for Change party, told the South China Morning Post that caution and transparency was needed regarding aid and investment from China as well as from other nations.

Juffa argued that Chinese investment to the country does not benefit local communities, adding: “We must try to maintain sovereignty. If we do not do that we will just become a colony of China.”

“I want to ensure that my people own Papua New Guinea’s economy.” he said.

“But now I don’t think we are owning [our] economy. If you want to be truly independent you must own the economy.”

Juffa and other opposition politicians have criticised Prime Minister Peter O’Neill for his closeness to China.

Chinese private investment in belt and road projects may be losing steam

During a visit to Beijing in June, O’Neill signed the country up to take part in China’s US$900 billion Belt and Road Initiative which aims to builds infrastructure to improve trade connectivity and investments around the region and the world.

But the projects have proved to be controversial in many of the participating countries.

Critics have warned that poorer countries risk running up unsustainable debts to pay for Chinese-built infrastructure schemes, while Sri Lanka has already been forced to hand over a port on a 99-year lease.

Juffa pointed to the example of Mahathir, who cancelled US$22 billion worth of belt and road projects in August, shortly after he returned to power, over concerns about their affordability.

No one wins in trade war, Xi tells world leaders

“We need to look at what Mahathir is doing, he has been very concerned about the future and sovereignty of Malaysia, he doesn’t want the country to be a colony of China. That is what we need to do here,” Juffa said.

“We can have Chinese influence but we need them to be based on our terms, we need to inform them about our laws, the fact that they are in our country and there has to be an element of respect,” he said.

Donors have helped cover the cost of hosting the Apec summit, but critics have said the lavish spending – including a controversial decision to buy 40 Maseratis to ferry delegates to and from the summit venue – has not brought any benefits for local people.

Juffa, said that most people in the country did not know what Apec was “or who has given the government money to do all these, or what we have given up”.

Juffa also argued that the quality of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects was worse than Australian ones, which reinforced the argument that Papua New Guinea should not side with just one country.

“We can accept Chinese aid but have projects imposed with an Australian standard. Then we know that roads built will be high quality,” Juffa said.

Australia – Papua New Guinea’s largest foreign donor – has vowed to up its aid to provide an estimated A$572 million (US$412 million) in official development assistance in 2018-19, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Maseratis aside, Papua New Guinea’s chairing of Apec spells progress

Chinese investment in Papua New Guinea – mostly in the form of infrastructure projects such as building roads and ports – grew to US$2.46 billion last year, a significant rise from 2016’s US$860 million, according to data compiled by China Global Investment Tracker.

“China has great power and wealth. We want to maintain our sovereignty. We can develop, expand, modernise at our pace in a way to maintain our position as an independent nation,” Juffa said.