WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Vanuatu will seek more Chinese financial support for infrastructure development through the Belt and Road initiative during an upcoming visit to Beijing, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai said on Wednesday.
The Pacific premier will meet President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during his first official visit to the Asian giant starting on May 26, according to China’s foreign ministry.
China’s footprint in the Pacific 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 and unsustainable debt burdens.
Salwai told reporters during a visit to New Zealand’s capital Wellington that he would discuss with Xi how China could support Vanuatu’s infrastructure development as part of Belt and Road.
“We are an independent country, and we can’t wait for grants to come,” he said, citing the need for projects in hard infrastructure like roads and ports, and also telecommunications, utilities, health and education.
“Whether through grants or through loans we have to have money to build our infrastructure, we want to invest this money into economic sectors,” he said, adding that funneling money into productive projects would also help it pay back its existing debt and develop the economy.
The small Pacific nation signed up for Xi’s hallmark Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in November alongside the seven other Pacific nations that recognize China diplomatically.
Vanuatu owes around $130 million to China, which accounts for roughly half its external debt and represents just over 13 percent of its annual GDP.
China has said that it is not creating unsustainable debt burden in the Pacific and providing development assistance at the request of governments.
The issue ignited last year over media reports China wanted to establish a military base in Vanuatu after funding a wharf big enough to handle warships. Both China and Vanuatu denied the reports.
Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Michael Perry