BRI projects facilitate social economic development in PNG as bilateral ties remain steadfast: Chinese ambassador
Respect and cooperation
Published: Oct 08, 2023 07:14 PM
Port Moresby File photo: VCG

Port Moresby File photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

Papua New Guinea (PNG), the largest Pacific Island country, was the first country to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and cooperation plan in the region for jointly building the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) with China. As the BRI celebrates its 10th anniversary,  Global Times reporter Shen Weiduo (GT) recently conducted an interview with Chinese Ambassador to PNG Zeng Fanhua (Zeng), covering two countries' cooperation under the BRI, and the prospects and possibilities for bilateral ties ahead.

GT: Could you please outline the flagship BRI projects between China and PNG over the past 10 years, and what impact have these projects had on the local community?

Zeng: PNG was the first Pacific Island country to sign a MOU and cooperation plan for jointly building the BRI with China. In recent years, China's cooperation with PNG in building the BRI has consistently adhered to the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits. It has also followed the concepts of open, green and clean cooperation, with a commitment to high-standard, people-centered, and sustainable development goals. A large number of capable Chinese enterprises have contributed to the construction of roads, bridges, airports, ports, the national power grid, undersea cables, as well as hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure in PNG. I would like to introduce a few representative projects.

The PNG National Power Grid Phase One Project is a crucial part of PNG's national power grid, with transmission lines starting from Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands Province, crossing rugged mountains and remote jungles to deliver electricity to Tari of Hela Province. Chinese contractors overcame various challenges and completed this project with high quality, significantly improving grid connectivity in PNG and improving local living standards. 

The PNG National Submarine Cable Network Project has connected 14 major cities in PNG including Port Moresby, Madang, Lae, etc, ending the country's reliance on high-cost, low-bandwidth networks like satellites and microwave. The project has greatly improved PNG's communication infrastructure, enhanced communication quality, and reduced costs, making connectivity with the world more streamlined.

The Juncao and Upland Rice Project has been implemented in PNG for over 20 years and has benefited more than 40,000 local people. PNG's Prime Minister James Marape referred to Juncao technology as a "gift from China to the world," with Juncao now known locally as the "grass of happiness" and "grass of prosperity." Some parents even name their children "Juncao."

The Butuka Academy, built with assistance from Shenzhen city of China, is the largest and most well-equipped school in PNG, with facilities for kindergarten and grades 1 to 12, accommodating more than 3,000 students. In 2021, it established a Confucius Classroom, becoming the first and only primary and secondary school in PNG to offer Chinese language education. The school not only addresses the problem of limited access to education but also elevates the standard of basic education. Currently, admission to the school is highly competitive, with many parents from other provinces wanting to send their children there, and many high-level government officials hoping to build another Butuka in their hometowns.

GT: What are the main areas of cooperation between China and PNG?

Zeng: The past decade has witnessed the most rapid development in China-PNG relations since the establishment of diplomatic ties. In particular, President Xi Jinping's historic state visit to PNG in 2018 led to the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership of mutual respect and common development, providing strong strategic guidance and driving force for bilateral relations, and continually advancing pragmatic cooperation in various fields. Currently, China's cooperation with PNG mainly focuses on three areas.

First is economic development, trade and investment. PNG has become China's largest trading partner, investment destination, and project contracting market in the Pacific Islands region. The two economies are highly complementary, and economic cooperation continues to grow. In 2022, bilateral trade reached $5.26 billion, a year-on-year increase of 29.9 percent. In the first half of this year, PNG's exports to China reached $1.9 billion, a 6 percent increase year-on-year. PNG continues to supply liquefied natural gas to the Chinese market, and an increasing number of affordable, good quality Chinese products are entering the PNG market.

Second is people-to-people exchanges. China has dispatched 12 medical teams to PNG over 20 years consecutively, providing medical services to over 100,000 people, conducting thousands of medical training sessions, and saving numerous lives, earning praise from the local community. The Confucius Institute at the PNG University of Technology and the Confucius Classroom at Butuka Academy are thriving, driving interest in learning Chinese and studying in China. Chinese government scholarships have become one of the most popular programs for study abroad among local students.

Third is development cooperation. China has provided assistance to PNG without attaching any political conditions, helping to improve the country's economic and social development conditions and people's livelihoods through a large number of infrastructure projects. For example, Independence Boulevard, supported by China, has become a landmark main road in the capital, Port Moresby, and the Enga Provincial Hospital, also supported by China, is the most modern comprehensive hospital in the area.  

GT: What efforts has China made to promote local economic development?

Zeng: Over the years, both countries have worked to enhance synergy between BRI and PNG's development strategies including PNG Vision 2050, Development Strategic Plan 2010-2030, and Connect PNG. China has strengthened poverty reduction cooperation with PNG under the framework of South-South Cooperation, provided assistance within its capacity to PNG. I've already mentioned China-PNG cooperation in areas such as trade, infrastructure, and development, which have significantly contributed to local economic development. Both sides continue to expand cooperation into new areas. In June this year, the representative office of Bank of China opened in PNG, which will play a role in strengthening China-PNG economic and trade ties and supporting local economic development. Currently, the two countries are actively advancing negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement, and China will continue to increase imports of PNG products and encourage Chinese enterprises to invest and cooperate in PNG.

It's important to emphasize that China's engagement in the area is not just about providing short-term assistance but also about nurturing self-reliance. The infrastructure projects we support are mainly in areas of connectivity and people's livelihoods, laying a foundation for local economic and social development. Chinese enterprises entering PNG are highly focused on local operations, actively hiring and training local employees to help them acquire skills. "Giving a man a fish is not as good as teaching him how to fish," says a Chinese proverb, which interprets China's way of conducting international cooperation.

GT: What's the significance of pushing forward relations with PNG?

Zeng: PNG is the largest Pacific Island country and the second-largest country in Oceania in terms of land area and population, only after Australia. PNG achieved its national independence less than 50 years ago and is rich in energy, minerals, fisheries, forestry, and tourism resources. The potential for development in PNG is enormous. China and PNG enjoy a longstanding tradition of friendly exchanges. More than 100 years ago, Chinese people came to PNG, worked diligently, integrated into the local culture, and became an integral part of PNG's diverse multicultural fabric.

As the largest developing country and the largest Pacific Island country, the relationship between China and PNG goes beyond bilateral ties and holds increasing regional and strategic implications. It serves as a "locomotive" for China's relations with South Pacific Island countries. Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1976, both sides have respected and supported each other at the political level. PNG has consistently adhered to the One-China principle and, this year, it closed its trade office in Taipei. Both countries firmly support multilateralism, uphold the international system centered on the United Nations, and the basic principles of international law and basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of UN Charter. Economically, we are each other's largest trading partners respectively in the Asia and South Pacific Island region. China has a vast market and strength in technology and funding, while PNG has abundant resources, making us natural economic complementary partners with significant cooperation potential. PNG needs high-quality and affordable Chinese products to improve the quality of life for its people, and can offer energy, minerals, coffee, palm oil, and other high-quality products to meet Chinese market demands.

As President Xi Jinping pointed out during his meeting with PNG Prime Minister Marape in November 2022, China and PNG, as good friends, good partners and good brothers, have set a fine example of solidarity, collaboration and win-win cooperation between developing countries. China will work with PNG toward a comprehensive strategic partnership at a higher level which delivers greater mutual benefit.

GT: What's the next area of focus for future cooperation between the two countries?

Zeng: Looking ahead, considering the substantial development potential in both countries, there are at least three key areas of cooperation in the coming stages: Firstly, the PNG government is actively promoting the development of domestic downstream processing industries, aiming to transform its resource-rich advantages in energy, minerals, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries into sustainable development momentum. PM Marape and other senior officials have expressed a desire to welcome more Chinese companies to invest and operate in these fields, which are the strengths of capable Chinese enterprises going global. This presents unprecedented new opportunities for cooperation between the two sides.

Secondly, PNG is interested in learning from China's experience in developing special economic zones. It is attempting to establish several special economic zones to boost its own economic development. China is willing to share its successful experience and provide necessary support. This will be a new growth area for cooperation in the next stage.

Thirdly, as a culturally diverse country with rich tourism resources, PNG acknowledges and supports the Global Civilization Initiative. It is keen to step up cultural and people-to-people exchanges with China and attract more Chinese tourists. Currently, learning the Chinese language and studying in China have become a trend in PNG. The PNG Department of Defense has established Chinese language training courses, and the PM and several ministers have expressed strong interest in learning Chinese. It is believed that there will be significant room for cooperation in various fields, including tourism, in the future. 

Chinese Ambassador to PNG Zeng Fanhua Photo: Courtesy of Chinese Embassy in PNG

Chinese Ambassador to PNG Zeng Fanhua Photo: Courtesy of Chinese Embassy in PNG

GT: In recent years, Western media has claimed that China is using economic cooperation to "infiltrate" Pacific Island countries and hyping the so-called "debt trap" narrative, how do you view such statements?

Zeng: China has remained committed to supporting the economic and social development of other developing countries, including Pacific Island countries. Our cooperation is based on principles of mutual respect, equality, and mutual benefit when engaging in investment and financing with these countries. Our cooperation with Pacific Island countries is open, transparent, and fully respects the sovereignty and will of each nation. It comes with no political conditions, is not targeted at any third party, and there is no such thing as "infiltration" or a "debt trap." The cooperation is welcomed and recognized by the governments and people of Pacific Island countries.

Countries like PNG focus on peace and development and are particularly concerned about addressing the enormous challenges posed by climate change. They adhere to a foreign policy of "friends to all, enemies to none," reject confrontational approaches, and refuse to take sides. They view China's rapid development as an opportunity, especially valuing China's vast market, and look forward to the increase of Chinese investment.

The claims of "infiltration" or "debt trap" by a few Western countries are entirely misleading. Some of these countries view Pacific Island countries like PNG as their "backyard" and, under the guise of aid and development cooperation, interfere in and manipulate the internal development and external cooperation of PNG in various fields, including politics, security, economy, and culture. This is what constitutes real infiltration and trap.

GT: How do you view the influence of geopolitical factors on China-PNG relations?

Zeng: In developing relations and cooperation with PNG, China has always adhered to principles of equality, openness, inclusiveness, and mutual benefit, providing assistance based on the real needs and interests of PNG. Pacific Island countries are peaceful. What the people of Pacific Island countries need is economic development and rising living standards, rather than military bases or conflicts. We have no objections to other countries cooperating with Pacific Island countries, cooperation should not target third parties or harm the interests of third parties. Never should it disrupt the peace and stability of the entire region. Ultimately, who are PNG's friends and who genuinely support PNG's development is something that the people of PNG can discern clearly.

In fact, PNG firmly opposes geopolitical maneuvering. As long as we continue to develop our relationship with PNG based on the "four fully respects" as President Xi Jinping has outlined on China's policy toward Pacific Island countries, we are convinced that, regardless of external challenges, the relationship between our two countries will remain steadfast and continue to advance steadily.