Australia is ramping up co-operation with the Pacific after a major international summit ended in a tense dispute between China and the United States.
Papua New Guinea hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting for the first time, but it ended without an official statement after the two superpowers could not agree on the wording.
Australia was caught in the middle between its largest trading partner China and long-time ally the US, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison was making the Pacific nations a priority.
“We’re trying to focus on the development and the advancement of the Pacific,” he told reporters on Sunday.
“There’s an opportunity to work together and we need to assist these countries to be stronger, because when they’re stronger both in their sovereignty, in their independence, in their economy, that’s all very good news for Australia.”
Mr Morrison announced a package of extra scholarships for Pacific students to study in Australian schools, and a “Pacific Australia Card” making it easier for politicians, business and sports people to visit Australia.
Australia and the US will also jointly expanded the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island, opening up a key staging point into the contested South China Sea.
And Australia, the US, Japan and New Zealand will jointly fund a major electrification project in PNG.
The prime minister praised PNG for hosting APEC, despite the lack of agreement on trade.
China and the US could not agree on language about reforms to the World Trade Organisation, and China opposed levelling the playing field against state-owned enterprises.
On Monday, Mr Morrison will visit Bomana cemetery, which contains 3824 Commonwealth burials from World War II, including 699 unidentified graves.
It is the first time in the history of the APEC grouping that leaders were unable to agree on a formal written declaration amid sharp differences over trade policy.
“The leaders agreed that instead of a traditional leaders’ declaration, they would leave it to the hands of PNG as the chair to issue a chair statement on behalf of all the members,” Zhang Xiaolong, a spokesman from the Chinese foreign ministry, said.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted there were “different visions on particular elements with regard to trade that prevented full consensus on a communique document.”
The annual gathering, held for the first time in Papua New Guinea, was overshadowed by speeches from Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Mike Pence, which appeared to represent competing bids for regional leadership.
Mr Pence warned smaller countries not to be seduced by China’s massive Belt-and-Road infrastructure programme, which sees Beijing offer money to poorer countries for construction and development projects.
The “opaque” loans come with strings attached and build up “staggering debt”, Mr Pence charged, mocking the initiative as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road”.
He urged nations instead to stick with the United States, which doesn’t “drown our partners in a sea of debt” or “coerce, corrupt or compromise your independence”.
In a speech to business leaders just minutes before Mr Pence, Mr Xi insisted the initiative was not a “trap” and there was no “hidden agenda” – amid criticism that it amounts to “chequebook diplomacy” in the region.
Mr Xi also lashed out at “America First” trade protectionism, saying it was a “short-sighted approach” that was “doomed to failure”.
The feisty barbs on a gleaming white cruise ship moored in Port Moresby set the scene for a potentially fiery meeting between Mr Xi and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of this month.
But Mr Xi and Mr Pence, who both wore shiny, red shirts provided by the Pacific island did hold talks on Saturday night at the leaders’ gala dinner.
Mr Pence told reporters on Sunday: “I spoke to President Xi twice during the course of this conference. We had a candid conversation.”
He told him that the US is interested in a better relationship with China “but there has to be change” in Beijing’s trade policies.
With fears that a trade war between the two rivals could cripple the Pacific Rim economy, some attendees voiced concern about the growing rivalry for influence in the region.
“Business leaders do not want to speak out, but behind the scenes here, they are talking over dinner saying ‘how has this happened’?” said Denis O’Brien, the billionaire chairman of Digicel.
“It’s a very forced situation, one country is trying to force all the other countries to change tariffs agreed over years,” Mr O’Brien told AFP.
APEC future in doubt after costly blow up
With Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin absent and leaders unable even to agree a joint statement, some critics are questioning whether the annual APEC summit is still worth the effort.
“Expectations are low and probably won’t be fulfilled anyway.” That was the brutal if prescient pre-summit prediction of William Reinsch, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The two-day gathering in Papua New Guinea was almost five years in the making, cost untold millions of dollars and required the deployment of at least one battleship and three cruise liners.
And after all that, leaders came away with little more than three family photos and a loud shirt unlikely to be worn again.
PNG’s government dealt with more than 21 delegations, each numbering in the dozens if not hundreds who needed to be fed, housed and watered and ferried round a city not exactly designed for armour plated motorcades.
Papua New Guinea officials forgot to provide lighting for a leaders’ photo opportunity, outside, at night and at another they put their own flag upside down.
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