China’s Eyes on Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea government’s recent announcement that it will gazette 7,500 sq. miles of the Bismarck Sea as marine protected areas that are home to sharks, rays, dolphins, and much more has to be seen against the bizarre backdrop of last week’s 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Port Moresby, where Chinese diplomats wrecked the usual consensus agreement settled by the 20 other member countries and broke out in applause when it died at their hands, to the disgust of other participants.

It was a week during which the Chinese bullied the host nation into accepting its demands in what has come to be called “tantrum diplomacy,” riding roughshod over envoys of most of the other member countries. Chinese officials were photographed making an ominous nuisance of themselves, bursting into government buildings uninvited, banning all media access to a meeting between President Xi Jinping with the leaders of the eight Pacific nations, barring reporters from entering the building so that only Chinese press could cover it.

They demanded a meeting with the Papua New Guinea foreign minister, who declined their pressure in an attempt to preserve his country’s neutrality as APEC chairman, then physically invaded his office, forcing him to call the police.

It is clear that China wants a major role in PNG’s economic state of affairs, and believes it should get it. It intends to intimidate PNG into it along with its bullying of the other APEC nations. Xi Jinping wants land, as China has gained land for agricultural production and other uses across the planet in Africa, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and other places. That huge ocean preserve that PNG designated is likely a target.

The marine preserve is where the US and Australian Air Forces trounced the Japanese in the “Battle of the Bismarck Sea,” the beginning of the allied effort to turn around the stunning string of victories that Japan had pulled off across the South China Sea in its bid to dominate the region. General Douglas MacArthur and the American forces that he commanded, along with the Australians, pulled off one of the greatest military achievements in the history of war. But new tensions are brewing.

At the conference, US Vice President Mike Pence traded barbs with Xi without actually having faced one another while doing so, with each offering competing visions for the region’s future. Pence announced that the US and Australia would be upgrading the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island in the country in what Xi almost certainly interpreted as a countermeasure to his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a grand multi-continent infrastructure scheme which, increasingly, involves strategic military installations that often come about as a result of debt-trap deals in which the host country cannot afford to repay the loans on projects that were of questionable use to the host country to begin with.

The US has come up with its own “Indo-Pacific Strategy” which, with backing from Australia and Japan, seeks, it says, to offer an alternative to China’s BRI with its debt traps and potential loss of sovereignty—something that has already happened in Sri Lanka with the Hambantota port, in Pakistan with the Gwadar port, and also on the Cambodian coast where a substantial portion of Koh Kong province has been leased to China for 99 years (the Cambodian government recently denied rumors that China was set to build a naval base there).

In fact, some Papuan politicians are making the case that the country should take Malaysia as a good example and pause to reevaluate Chinese investment, as investment from China doesn’t seem to benefit local people at all. On the contrary, it is almost always predatory with an insidious aim to influence local politics and consume sovereignty.

China is wooing PNG and others in the region with enticing-sounding investment schemes, but as the old adage goes, (and as Australia is learning) one should beware of Chinese bearing gifts.

It is picturesque to envision dolphins jumping and sea turtles paddling about where US and Australian forces once dropped bombs on Japanese ships, to witness sea eagles soaring where dogfights once occurred. In addition to the 7,500 sq. mile network of marine protected areas mentioned above, last year the government established a 3,600 sq. kilometer area protected area (at the time the nation’s largest) that is home to tree kangaroos and birds of paradise, and local grassroots conservation groups are also working on reforesting other regions of the country.

Wildlife can now hop and climb where combatants once shot at one another in deadly jungle warfare, and the most beautiful birds on the planet now glide where B-25 Mitchells and Japanese Zeroes fought it out.

But China is hungry for more territory. Looking back over the last seven decades, the Middle Kingdom has annexed Tibet, Xingjiang, and Inner Mongolia (all would have been among the largest countries in the world at the time), but were deterred from attempting to take Taiwan due in part to the threat of US military intervention and the strong possibility of a humiliating loss. Taiwan remains free yet China has designs on it.

China has claimed India’s Arunachal Pradesh province in the Himalayas for many years, though it is administered by India. China claims Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. In the 1990s China grabbed the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, something President Duterte has done nothing about and refuses to even speak on any more. The Paracel Islands are now in China’s hands and they are building new structures on islet features. China has built large reclaimed islands in the Spratly group—basically, China wants to claim the South China Sea as a Chinese province.

But this is not enough. Xi wants PNG, and he’s not after yams and tubers. He wants coastlinea and ports and military installations and to label it all part of the ‘benign’ BRI.

It’s not hard to envision what would follow: a Bismarck Sea turned red with the flags of Chinese fishing vessels, the dolphins, rays, sharks, seahorses, and sea turtles long gone; the coastal mangroves torn up to make way for development; the tree kangaroos ground into ‘traditional medicine’ and the birds of paradise tied down in shop houses for good luck.

That’s just part of the environmental angle. What of the influx of Chinese businessmen bringing in cut-throat priced products to ‘compete’ against local entrepreneurs, of resource extraction, illegal logging, dam-building, and so much more—and the work on all of it to be carried out by Chinese laborers, flown in to work for Chinese bosses?

Xi would prefer not to get into details such as these and simply expound on the “good” of this “relationship.” Japan forced its way in during WWII and denied this region all of its sovereignty. China’s method will be more subtle, and probably more insidious.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for the conservation NGO Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He has a conservation projects in Sumatra and Cambodia.