WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) - President Xi Jinping will showcase China’s Belt and Road initiative to Pacific leaders at a regional summit on Friday, diplomats say, with Western countries watching warily for signs of Beijing’s growing clout.
The competition for influence between China and Western allies Australia, New Zealand and the United States, is likely to provide a strong undercurrent at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
“China is showing a desire for a bigger role in the region, and that is out in the open like it has never been before,” said a senior British diplomat who declined to be named as she is not authorised to talk to the media.
China has said it will announce “important measures for further cooperation” at the summit. Western diplomats believe that probably means formally extending its Belt and Road plans into the Pacific.
First proposed by Xi in 2013, the initiative promotes expanding land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars pledged for infrastructure development.
Western governments harbour suspicions that Beijing’s professed desire to spread prosperity masks an underlying intention to become a more dominant power.
Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva is one of several island nation leaders who will meet collectively with Xi, having already been asked by Beijing to sign up to the Belt and Road.
“We’re discussing that right now”,” Lopeti Senituli, a political advisor to the Tongan premier, told Reuters.
For Pacific nations, China may offer support for much needed infrastructure and development. Xi’s vision to provide links to a bigger marketplace could also prove hard to resist for leaders of the remote, fledgling economies.
For China, extending its influence into the Pacific would lessen the sense of maritime containment, and also potentially secure support from grateful, indebted governments at international forums, where numbers can count.
Three sources familiar with the matter, including the British official, said that Western nations had been informed that Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and Niue have agreed sign onto Belt and Road.
Niue and the Cook Islands did not respond to an emailed request for comment, but the Cook Islands’ Finance Minister Mark Brown told Radio New Zealand last week that his government would be signing.
Vanuatu’s Prime Minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said in a message on Twitter that he “did not believe” Vanuatu had committed to Belt and Road but he would check.
China’s official Belt and Road website reported that Fiji had made a commitment on Monday, joining the likes of Samoa and Papua New Guinea.
China’s footprint in the region has been growing in the past decade. Pacific governments now owe about $1.3 billion in concessional debt to China, raising fears in the West, that the region was becoming more susceptible to Beijing’s diplomatic pressure.
A senior Chinese diplomat said on Tuesday no country can block Beijing’s cooperation with Pacific Island nations.
Xi’s meeting with the island nation leaders, which a U.S. diplomatic source said will be held without observers from the West, comes after a series of Western initiatives to shore up ties in the Pacific.
Australia last week declared the Pacific “our patch” as it offered A$3 billion ($2.18 billion) in cheap infrastructure loans and grants.
Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore