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APEC: Australia caught between China and US, PNG electricity and naval base

Scott Morrison has caught himself bang in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and China.

The US and Australia will share a naval base in the north end of Papua New Guinea on Manus Island, creating another key staging point close to the contested South China Sea.

“The United States will partner with Papua New Guinea and Australia on their joint initiative at Lombrum Naval Base,” US Vice President Mike Pence said.

“We will work with these two nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights in the Pacific Islands. ”

media_cameraUS Vice President Mike Pence with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison ahead of the APEC Summit. Picture: Saeed Khan/AFP
media_cameraPapua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and Mike Pence at APEC Summit. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

At an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Port Moresby on Saturday, Mr Morrison urged nations to embrace free trade and avoid “unsustainable debt”.

He confirmed the US and Australia will share an expanded naval base on Manus Island, as the US ramped up rhetoric against China.

Mr Pence quoted President Donald Trump in his speech following Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We have great respect for President Xi and respect for China. But in the president’s words, China’s taken advantage of the United States for many, many years,” he said.

“And those days are over.”

His speech was met with stony silence from the Chinese delegation, after President Xi had reassured leaders his Belt and Road Initiative was not a debt trap.

China has also been at loggerheads with the United States over its territorial ambitions in the Pacific, encapsulated by Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Unveiled in 2013, the Belt and Road initiative aims to bolster a sprawling network of land and sea links with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

China’s efforts to win friends in the resource-rich Pacific have been watched warily by the traditionally influential powers in the region — Australia and the United States.

READ MORE: Papua New Guinea’s ‘road to nowhere’ a stark sign of China’s influence in the Pacific

media_cameraChina’s President Xi Jinping waves after making his keynote speech at the CEO Summit of the APEC summit in Port Moresby on November 17. Picture: Peter Parks/AFP
media_cameraXi Jinping and Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wait for the group photo at APEC. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

“It is not designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda,” President Xi said on Saturday.

“Nor is it a trap, as some people have labelled it.”

But Mr Pence said loans to developing countries were too often opaque and encouraged nations to look to the US instead of China.

“Too often they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt,” he said in his speech.

“Do not accept foreign debt that could compromise your sovereignty.

“Just like America, always put your country first.”

Mr Morrison committed Australia to look to the Pacific nations and on Sunday he will host an informal BBQ with Pacific leaders.

He also announced a joint partnership with Japan and the US to fund infrastructure around the region.

On the back of Mr Morrison’s defence of free trade at the summit, Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said he was confident the US was interested in an open trading environment in the long run.

media_cameraDmitry Medvedev, Peter O’Neill, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Mike Pence and Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha pose for a group photo Picture: Saeed Khan/AFP
media_cameraMike Pence, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk as they arrive for a group photo. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

Australia is hoping the US will, in the end, take a similar approach to its trade dispute with China as it did with its tariff threats against Mexico and Canada.

“Ultimately, they laid down arms, they walked away from threats, and they struck a new trade deal that ensures trade continues in that North American bloc,” Mr Birmingham told ABC TV on Sunday.

“We hope the same will happen in relation to China.”

Four countries including the US have signed up to an effort to bring electricity to 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s people by 2030.

Australia, Japan, the US and New Zealand on Sunday signed an agreement to work with Papua New Guinea’s government on electrification.

It’s the latest sign of great power competition in the South Pacific, where China is vying with the US and its allies for influence.

media_cameraThe leaders smile for a group photo. Picture: Saeed Khan/AFP.

“Papua New Guinea has invited Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United States to work together to support its enhanced connectivity and the goal of connecting 70 per cent of its population to electricity by 2030,” a joint statement signed by PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, New Zealand’s PM Jacinta Ardern, Mr Morrison and Mr Pence reads.

“Currently only about 13 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s population have reliable access to electricity.”

“Access to electricity is key to Papua New Guinea’s economic growth. Electricity lifts the living standards of communities in cities, towns and remote villages. It allows schools and hospitals to deliver essential services. It is also an essential precursor for the growth of the private sector and industry, including small and medium enterprises.”

“Importantly, this initiative represents a true partnership between Papua New Guinea and its key partners to drive growth and development for communities throughout Papua New Guinea. The partnership is intended to be delivered in alignment with Papua New Guinea’s own plans and priorities and implemented in close conjunction with PNG Power Limited.”

— With wires

Originally published as Sharp barbs fired between US and China

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