BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO | PNG Informal Economist
PORT MORESBY - If there was going to be a place to test the seriousness of US and China to engage with the Pacific; Papua New Guinea was going to be that place and the APEC 2018 summit provided that opportunity – the first communiqué less summit in the 25 years since it was established.
China’s significant presence in PNG and the region may well be one of the major factors as to why the US and China could not agree to the wording of a communiqué. In a high profile summit like APEC, compromises had to be made in the spirit of diplomacy. Unfortunately that was not the case.
The sight of Chinese flags waving on rows of poles erected on the side and middle of roads designated for APEC leaders and their convoy of vehicles would have rung alarm bells especially among the Western leaders.
Seeing PNG and Chinese flags fly alongside each other was a powerful statement to the West that China is already ahead in the game of chess when it comes to geo-politics in PNG and the region.
The West knew it had to quickly counter. The US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan made huge commitments in the area of education, border protection, defence and electricity. But will it be enough to counter China’s rapidly growing influence in the region?
Chinese funded project although grandiose in nature have often been criticised for its lack of transparency and respect for due process. Furthermore, some of these projects have been described as a waste of money given they are not suited to the needs of the host country.
The projects are often secretly negotiated within governments. Details of the projects and loans that fund them are at best sketchy and hidden from public scrutiny, raising skepticism among the general populous.
The US and its allies must take a different route, one that embraces consultation and transparency not only at government to government level but most importantly at ground level, directly reaching out to landowners, community groups, civil society organisations and churches.
Whether it be the construction of the naval base in Lombrum, bilateral or multilateral trade agreements, climate change or movement of people and goods and services across borders. the West must endeavour to consult and enter dialogue with citizens of the region.
The US and its allies should not attempt to bulldoze their way into PNG and the Pacific, rather they must work on building new and improving existing people to people relationships as part of their grand geo-political ambition.
The fruits of this may not be immediately visible compared to investing in large infrastructure projects but its legacy will endure and will form the bedrock for future bilateral or multilateral engagements.
People to people relationship, rather than offering half-hearted gestures that only benefit politicians, diplomats and business people, are critical to maintaining the region within the US sphere of influence. Politicians and diplomats come and go but the people will always be there.
At its core, this strategy must open opportunities for Papua New Guineans and Pacific Islanders to gain meaningful skills and knowledge and have access to appropriate technology to harness the natural environment and so generate wealth for their families, communities and the nation.
Unlike the West, most land in the Pacific is traditionally owned and it makes sense to actively engage with the people as well as government. At present the benefits from large impact projects such as PNG LNG have had very little impact in transforming the lives of the people.
At the same time, governments in the region need to be more open and transparent in conducting their affairs. State institutions should be free from political interference and justice dispensed without fear or favour.
The West must be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Papua New Guineans and Pacific Islanders on issues such as climate change and fair trade. This is the time as the pendulum of history is now with the Pacific.
To deal with the governments and citizens of the Pacific, the US and its allies must have patience and perseverance and at times be willing to take a leap of faith. They must listen not just to the government but to the voice of the people.
China is not only promoting its image as a major power but it is looking ahead with investments as part of its Belt and Road initiative. A similar coordinated plan needs to be developed by the US and its allies so that efforts to counter Chinese influence are sustained over time. Central to that plan must eb a greater focus on strengthening people to people relationships.
In the haste to halt Chinese burgeoning influence in the region, the US and its allies must not attack fire with fire but must maintain faith in promoting good governance and mutual respect among the people of the Pacific and the West.