Australian aid pushing back against China in PNG
Australia is lucky that China is so bad at foreign aid in Papua New Guinea.
The evidence was everywhere in Port Moresby, where Papua New Guinea was hosting its first major international summit this week.
The Asia Pacific Economic Corporation meeting was notable for the escalating trade war between China and the United States, but there were key wins for Australia.
Once the colonial rulers of PNG, Australia took its eye off the ball in terms of its closest neighbour.
Aid budgets were slashed across the board in 2014 under Tony Abbott, opening space for a rising China to fill the void.
And China definitely did – but luckily for Australia, they’ve done it badly.
For example, PNG’s best road went from the airport to the port. China spent months ripping it up and rebuilding it ahead of APEC, reportedly because it was the road President Xi Jinping would drive on.
Locals say when China builds aid projects like roads and hospitals, it flies in Chinese workers, Chinese equipment, and Chinese building materials.
The workers live in their own camp eating Chinese food, and the “aid money” is returned to Chinese companies.
The practice has annoyed Papua New Guineans, who say it is not building any skills and capacity in their country, and there is no ability to maintain projects because no one knows how they were built.
There are multiple examples of this. The malaria hospital China built in Port Moresby, which is cut off from the rest of the country and where malaria isn’t comparatively that bad.
The 600 metre “road to nowhere”, a giant boulevard connecting PNG’s parliament with a nearby highway, now festooned with large Chinese flags and unironically named “Independence Boulevard”.
Australia opened the door for China to step in, and China has kindly opened it right back up.
Australian aid in PNG has largely focused on healthcare, education, developing the systems the country needs to take care of itself, rather than infrastructure.
But during the summit the two countries announced 50 per cent of Australian PNG aid would now go towards building projects.
PNG wants the infrastructure, but it wants it done on its own terms.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened a new University of Papua New Guinea building, at the school of public policy, and his point was clear.
The new building was Australian-funded, but more than 400 PNG locals were working on it on any given day.
“This is a project that has really called on the skills and abilities of Papua New Guineans to bring it together,” Morrison said at the opening on Sunday.
Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United States will also jointly fund an electrification project, getting power to 70 per cent of PNG’s population by 2030.
Just 13 per cent of Papua New Guineans have reliable access to power, as more than 80 per cent of the country is in remote or rural areas.
The project will dramatically change the quality of life in PNG. NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed out it would significantly help women.
PNG is one of the worst places on earth to be a woman, with more than two-thirds experiencing domestic violence, and maternal death rates second only to Afghanistan.
Australia runs education and healthcare programs, but they can only go so far in a country where 8.5 million people mainly live in mountainous, inaccessible areas.
Papua New Guinea needs useful infrastructure if it is to transform, not the type that China has offered so far.
Now PNG could become an important part of the escalating tension between China and the US, with the expansion of the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.
The US and Australia will use the expanded port for its navies, significantly extending the reach of the ADF’s Collins class submarines.
The base gives the US another key staging point into the contested South China Sea, creating a chain of bases in Japan, the Philippines and Guam to project naval power into the region.
China’s bid to project power into the Pacific will still continue, but Australia’s aid efforts show it is prepared to push back in a way which brings our neighbours along with us.
Angus Livingston, AAP Senior Political Writer