America will lay out its plan to counter China’s “dangerous debt diplomacy” in the Indo-Pacific when US Vice President Mike Pence addresses business leaders in Papua New Guinea on Saturday.
Ahead of that China’s President Xi Jinping will press Pacific island leaders to sign up to his signature trillion dollar “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan when he arrives in PNG today, two days before the APEC leaders’ summit.
This strategic battle for the Indo-Pacific, played out on our doorstep at a meeting of the 21 member economic forum, will be a stark illustration of the tough decisions Australia faces in the years ahead as it walks the fine diplomatic line between its key ally and major trading partner.
A senior US administration official told 9News that Mr Pence’s speech to an APEC business leaders’ forum will “put meat on the bones of our Indo-Pacific strategy”.
“We’ll also be explaining the benefits of free markets and how APEC helps to write the rules of better economic integration in the region,” the official said.
“That will stand in sharp contrast to the dangerous debt diplomacy that China has been engaging in throughout the region.
“It’s led several countries from Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia to have serious debt problems from accepting loans that are not transparent.”
America wants a coalition of nations to build an alternative to China’s Belt and Road – the grand plan to tie both ends of Eurasia through a land route (the belt) and a maritime route (the road). Beijing’s ambition now extends into Africa and Oceania.
The initiative is viewed with suspicion by many in Washington and Canberra as a Trojan Horse designed to get a strategic stranglehold on the regions it traverses.
Australian officials fear that China will use its increasing economic presence in the Pacific to set up a military toehold in the Southwest Pacific.
China’s President Xi Jinping is pressing Pacific Island leaders to sign up to his Belt and Road plan. ()
That was one, unspoken, reason behind Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recently announced Pacific pivot, promising more money for building projects along with an increased defence presence in South Pacific nations.
Amid warnings from Beijing that the Pacific is no country’s sphere of influence, Washington is signalling that it does not intend to take a backward step.
“We’ve been in the Pacific, we are in the Pacific and we always will be because we’re a Pacific nation,” the US official said.
Mr Pence will use the business forum to make more announcements about cooperating to build infrastructure.
“We will be promoting the US private sector-driven model. How companies come to the regions and deliver prosperity,” the official said. “We don’t do state run things.”
The US official said the Vice President and the Prime Minister had a lot to discuss on security from North Korea to freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.
“We’ll talk about the great alliance and partnership we have with Australia,” he said.
“You’ll hear a lot of stories about the US these days being unilateral or against multilateralism. But I think this trip will give proof we want to work with our allies and partners and we are working with them.
“This trip is about making sure the region really understands what we’re talking about when we’re talking about freedom in the Indo-Pacific.”