By Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook
PORTMORESBY (Reuters) – After world leaders jetted out of Papua New Guinea following the acrimonious end to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Pacific nation leaders gathered at Australia’s High Commission for kangaroo sausages and cold beer.
The final function on Sunday in the capital Port Moresby followed a whirlwind of diplomacy for the leaders of the sparsely populated but strategically important Pacific.
While they have been feted by both East and West in the build up to APEC, key issues affecting them – climate change and development – were largely sidelined at the summit by a war of words between the superpowers on trade policy.
With both giants unyielding, APEC leaders failed to agree on a communique for the first time in the forum’s history.
“Let them fight it out…those are the issues that concern them,” Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi told Reuters in an interview in Port Moresby.
“They absolutely have no importance to us. All we are interested in is to build a small road, a small hospital, a small school building and all these things about trade issues are well beyond our comprehension.”
The Pacific island nations command swathes of ocean, pivotal during World War Two, and are home to fish stock and reserves of fossil fuels.
The emergence of China as a key aid donor and partner for Pacific countries has led to friction between China and western allies.
China is now the second-biggest aid donor to the region behind Australia, rising from nearly nothing a decade ago. China’s emergence drew barbs from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday, who said countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty – a reference to China’s Belt and Road project.
Such divisive comments did not necessarily go down well.
“I was just pleased with the message from the Chinese president. I thought his views better represented how we feel,” Papua New Guinean Treasurer Charles Abel told Reuters.
He said he particularly appreciated Xi’s remarks that developing countries are owed equal treatment as traders by developed countries. Abel, who is also deputy prime minister, added he felt Pence came across as a little too aggressive.
“We’re not interested in taking sides, we’re just happy to work with all our good partners and we really appreciate the assistance that’s coming,” he said.
In Port Moresby, China had just added the finishing touches to a showpiece six-lane boulevard running between a main road in Port Moresby and parliament house.
Xi also pitched the Belt and Road initiative to eight Pacific leaders in a meeting on Friday. Tonga signed up and earned a reprieve from debt repayments to Beijing.
For his part, Pence said the United States would join Australia and PNG in building a port on Manus Island. The United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand also announced an ambitious $1.7 billion plan to expand PNG’s electricity grid and internet coverage.
The major economies also put on a show of soft power. Pence showed nine Pacific leaders a 400-year-old Bible that is in PNG’s parliament after he helped secure its donation by a missionary.
And on Sunday evening as sweltering heat gave way to a sea breeze, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison turned the sausages on the barbecue as he touted university scholarships and deeper ties with Australia.
Neither Pence nor Morrison, though, matched China’s rhetoric on climate change, a major security issue for Pacific islands where rising sea levels are forcing people to move to live on higher ground.
Climate change featured in Xi’s bilateral meetings with Pacific countries, which are concerned by Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and Australia’s soft pedalling on the issue.
“I have been to China and I have seen also the huge tree replanting and I’ve seen also the axing of major industries that are producing huge greenhouse gas into the air,” said Samoa’s Tuilaepa.
“We expect all the countries to honour their commitments, signed together and if we are not able to contain the warming of the globe…the polar ice melts. You know what will happen.”
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook in PORTMORESBY; Editing by John Mair and Neil Fullick)