Outflanking China, Western allies pledge to provide electricity to PNG
* U.S.-led plan seen as alternative to China energy proposal
* Four-fifths of PNG residents live outside urban areas
* Tonga signs up to China's Belt and Road
(Adds details on the cost of development, Tonga agreement with
By Tom Westbrook and Charlotte Greenfield
PORT MORESBY, Nov 18 (Reuters) - The United States and three
of its allies on Sunday unveiled a $1.7 billion plan to provide
electricity and internet to much of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the
first step of a plan that will counter China's Belt and Road
spending in the region.
Japan, Australia and New Zealand will join the United States
in funding the progamme in PNG, as reports emerged of tension
over the wording of a final statement to be issued at the end of
an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the PNG
capital of Port Moresby.
China had its success on Sunday, with a Tongan official
saying the Pacific nation had signed up to the Belt and Road
initiative and received a five-year deferral on a concessional
loan just before it was due to commence principal repayments.
The Western allies' plan would see 70 percent of PNG's
population getting electricity by 2030, from 13 percent now, and
was showcased as a demonstration of commitment to the
strategically important Pacific region.
"We trust that this announcement today, and the part of the
United States of America in this joint announcement, is proof
that America and our businesses are investing in this region as
never before," U.S Vice President Mike Pence told a news
Pence said it was the first project under a cooperation
agreement between the United States, Japan and Australia to
provide capital for infrastructure in the Pacific amid concern
about Chinese influence in the region.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived in Port Moresby on
Thursday, has been feted by PNG officials and stoked Western
concern on Friday when he held a meeting with Pacific island
leaders in which he pitched the Belt and Road initiative
On Saturday, Pence took direct aim at Belt and Road in an
APEC address, saying countries should not accept debt that
compromised their sovereignty.
The tension at the summit has created difficulty for Papua
New Guinea in drafting a communique acceptable to all members.
Australian media reported that Chinese officials demanded to see
PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato over the communique, but were
denied entry to his office.
Pato did not respond to messages and telephone calls seeking
PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live
outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure. It has emerged
as a flashpoint in the competition between the United States and
China to lock-in alliances in the region.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said the power
project would cost approximately $1.7 billion, and an Australian
government spokeswoman told Reuters it would contribute A$25
million ($18.3 million) in the first year of the initiative.
China has poured investment into development projects in the
region, including plans to build a large hydropower generation
plant in PNG as part if the Belt and Road initiative.
The Western plan comes as diplomatic sources told Reuters
that Australia and the United States were concerned about the
debt burden that the Chinese plant could have on PNG.
Belt and Road was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and
sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of
dollars in infrastructure investment from China.
Pence changed plans by staying in Port Moresby on Saturday
night. He had planned to fly in and out from northern Australian
that had angered the APEC host.
Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed
largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China
has only recently turned its attention to the region with a raft
of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook in PORT
MORESBY; Writing by Jonathan Barrett, Colin Packham; Editing by
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