November 15, 2018 / 10:13 AM / a month ago

PNG lays on a lavish welcome for China's Xi as he arrives for APEC

* Xi visits amid diplomatic push by China in the Pacific

* City streets blocked to accommodate motorcade

By Philip Wen and Jonathan Barrett

PORT MORESBY, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea (PNG) was keen to lay on an “excellent” welcome for Chinese President Xi Jinping when he arrived on Thursday for an Asia-Pacific summit and for talks with leaders of an impoverished region where China’s influence is growing.

Xi was the first world leader to arrive in Port Moresby for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, China’s Xinhua news agency reported, as China steps up its presence in a region that had until recently been an almost exclusive sphere of influence of staunch U.S. ally Australia.

Xi’s motorcade, including two custom-made Hongqi limousines air-lifted from China, was due to travel from the airport on a Chinese-funded repaved highway, which police sealed off, and past a boulevard adorned with the flags of both countries, en route to the top Stanley Hotel in the capital, Port Moresby.

The hotel is decorated with red lanterns and an elaborate Chinese-style gate.

“It will be a very excellent traditional welcome,” PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill told Reuters earlier, referring to Xi’s arrival, as he toured the APEC forum’s media centre.

The evidence of China’s growing relationship with resource-rich PNG contrasted with a more modest acknowledgment of the United States and Australia.

PNG was administered by Australia before gaining independence.

U.S. President Donald Trump is not attending this weekend’s APEC meeting. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is coming instead, is flying in and out of the forum from a base in northern Australia.

As well as official bilateral talks with PNG, Xi will hold a forum with the leaders of Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Micronesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue on Friday, and is expected to announce a big Chinese aid and investment package for the region.

Competition for influence in the Pacific between China and Western allies Australia, New Zealand and the United States, is likely to provide a strong undercurrent at the APEC summit.

Xi’s visit has featured prominently in PNG media, with newspapers highlighting the luxury cars he has brought with him and the 10 chefs who will cook for his big delegation.

On Wednesday, two newspapers carried a commentary from Xi in which he hailed the “rapid growth” in bilateral ties as an “epitome of China’s overall relations with Pacific island countries”.

“Hydropower stations, hospitals and school dormitories financed by Chinese government concessional loans have become landmark buildings across the country,” Xi said. (Reporting by Philip Wen and Jonathan Barrett in PORT MORESBY; additional reporting by Jill Gralow Editing by Robert Birsel)

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