Australia said it would provide A$580 million ($420 million) to Pacific neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG) to upgrade key ports, amid concern in Washington and Canberra that China’s infrastructure investment in Pacific islands is linked to military ambitions.
Earlier this month, Kurt Campbell, the US State Department coordinator for what Washington calls the Indo-Pacific region, said the South Pacific may well be the part of the world most likely to see a “strategic surprise”.
His comments were apparently referring to possible Chinese ambitions to establish military bases.
Australia’s funding will assist the Papua New Guinea Ports Corporation (PNG Ports) to increase capacity to accommodate larger ships, including container vessels on major trade routes.
This would improve trade connectivity, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.
The funding would also go towards urgent repairs on coastal wharves that are up to 70 years old.
A Chinese-funded wharf built on another Pacific island, Vanuatu, sparked Australian media reports in 2018 – denied by Vanuatu and Beijing – that China would seek to use the facility for naval vessels.
China Ocean Shipping Company (Cosco) in October 2021 became the first major Chinese cargo shipper to expand its services to PNG.
Cosco, the world’s largest integrated shipping group and third largest container line, will service PNG with bi-monthly vessel calls through Inchcape Shipping Services as its local PNG agents.
The line’s maiden voyage into PNG was that of the container ship Hansa Cloppenburg, which called at the port of Lae.
“Our country also has a strong relationship with China in terms of trade and as such partnerships enhance these connections,” Fego Kiniafa, managing director of PNG Ports, said.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell