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US, China rivalry to dominate summit

/ 07:00 AM November 17, 2018

Papuans gather at the roadside to welcome China’s President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby on November 16, 2018, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP)

PORT MORESBY—Asia-Pacific leaders fly into the unlikely venue of Port Moresby on Saturday for a summit that is expected to develop into a tug-of-war for regional influence between an assertive China and an increasingly withdrawn United States.

US President Donald Trump is skipping the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Council  meeting, sending US Vice President Mike Pence in his place, who is leaving after one day and staying in Australia rather than the dusty and crime-ridden Papua New Guinea capital.

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The contrast with China could hardly be more stark.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived two days before the summit for a state visit, and will open a road and school both funded by Beijing.

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Papua New Guinea rolled out the red carpet for Xi with Chinese flags fluttering down the length of the new road and images of the Chinese leader beaming down from billboards around Port Moresby.

Ben Rhodes, former US President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, said Trump’s absence had “opened up an enormous opportunity for China to expand its influence.”

Debt diplomacy

Setting the scene for a potential clash in Port Moresby, a senior US official accused Beijing of engaging in “dangerous debt diplomacy throughout the region.”

Several countries in the Asia-Pacific region have accepted loans from Beijing for infrastructure financing.

The trade war between the world’s two largest economies will also serve as a backdrop to what could be a tense gathering.

But the hosting of the summit in Port Moresby, ranked as one of the world’s least liveable cities, has gathered as much attention as the topics under discussion.

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For safety and to avoid building new hotels that will later lie empty, officials and journalists are staying on three gleaming cruise ships moored in Port Moresby harbor.

The runup to the summit became embroiled in scandal after the Papua New Guinea government bought 40 Maseratis worth $6.4 million to ferry leaders around.

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill came under fire after splurging on the fleet of luxury cars when half the population of Port Moresby live in squatter settlements.—AFP

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