APEC Host Country Has Few Good Roads, but It Has Maseratis
Posted November 12, 2018 7:42 p.m. EST
Updated November 12, 2018 7:48 p.m. EST
PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea — The Maseratis and Bentleys have been delivered. Laborers from China have repaired roads and installed bus stop shelters with signs saying “China Aid.” Three cruise ships will serve as temporary hotels.
The Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea is in the global spotlight as some of the world’s most powerful leaders gather here this week for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting.
Some say hosting the annual Asia-Pacific leaders forum will be Papua New Guinea’s biggest event since it gained independence in 1975. For the country’s scandal-ridden government, it is an opportunity to spend aid money on favored projects in the capital and import luxury vehicles that can be sold later to wealthy cronies.
Government leaders, most of them heads of state, will be arriving this weekend from 20 fellow member economies that ring the Pacific Ocean.
Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia will attend in place of President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who are skipping the meeting.
But President Xi Jinping of China, who is seeking to expand his country’s influence in the South Pacific, is expected to arrive two days early and attend a state dinner, meet with leaders of island nations and attend the opening of a school built with Chinese aid.
Papua New Guinea, a country of more than 8 million located north of Australia and east of Indonesia, is by far the poorest of the 21 economies that make up the Asia-Pacific conference, known as APEC.
The country is rich in minerals, timber, oil and gas but lacks the roads and ports to extract and export them. It also faces a national health crisis that includes the return of polio.
Papua New Guinea is the world’s most ethnically diverse nation, with more than 800 languages and 600 islands. Tribal rivalry is common and some clans have existed in a state of low-level conflict for generations.
“The political situation is quite complex,” said Alan Bollard, executive director of APEC. “It has a fluid party system and it is very tribal.”
The capital, Port Moresby, is free from any actual war, but still somehow feels like a war zone.
Reports of visitors being robbed in broad daylight are common. Wealthy Papua New Guineans live behind high, spiked fences. Many foreigners live in guarded compounds where units rent for $6,000 a month or more.
The security firm Black Swan International is one of the country’s largest companies, with 2,500 employees.
About 7,000 people are expected for the leaders’ meeting. With a shortage of hotels, most will stay on the three docked cruise ships provided by Carnival Australia.
The country’s wealth disparity is evident. About 85 percent of the country survives through subsistence farming, and less than a fifth of the population has electricity. In Port Moresby, many settlers live in shacks made of scrap wood and plastic tarps.
But in the downtown area, new high-rise residential buildings have sprung up on hillsides overlooking the harbor and a stunning new waterfront conference center, APEC Haus, where the world leaders will meet.
The country’s largest oil and gas exploration company, Oil Search, built APEC Haus in exchange for future tax credits.
Allegations of corruption have long shadowed the prime minister, Peter O’Neill, who took power in 2011. He appointed an anti-corruption task force but disbanded it after it accused him of fraud.
In June 2016, the police fired on student protesters who were calling on him to step down over corruption charges. More than 20 were wounded.
Elections held last year were riddled with fraud, intimidation and vote-buying, international observers found.
The country ranks 135th out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
In July and August, the government spent $7 million to purchase 40 Maserati sedans and three Bentley Flying Spurs for the APEC meeting, invoices for the transactions show. That includes more than $1.3 million to deliver the Maseratis by air.
Officials said the cars would be used to transport world leaders to meeting events and that the government would recoup its money by selling the cars afterward.
The invoices identify the Maserati dealer as a spare parts shop in Sri Lanka and the Bentley vendor as a medical supply firm in Malaysia. Neither company could be reached for comment.
Even by APEC standards, the car deal was unusual. Bollard said that no other member economy had ever bought Maseratis to chauffeur world leaders.
“It’s certainly not something we were proposing,” he said.
Top officials did not respond to interview requests from The Times, including O’Neill; the deputy prime minister, Charles Abel; the minister for APEC, Justin Tkatchenko; and the government’s APEC coordinator, Christopher Hawkins, whose name is on the invoices.
Bryan Kramer, an opposition member of Parliament, said that importing luxury vehicles was ludicrous since the country has few paved roads and no national road network.
He asserted that officials planned to sell the cars to wealthy friends without charging the requisite taxes for luxury vehicles, saving them more than half the normal cost.
“It’s a scheme to bring the cars into the country using government funds,” Kramer said. On the eve of the APEC meeting, an outbreak of polio highlighted the country’s mismanagement.
The first case, a 6-year-old boy, was announced in June. Since then, health officials have confirmed 20 more cases, including one in the capital. Young children are most susceptible to the disease, which can cause paralysis or death.
The country eradicated polio in 2000, but the low vaccination rate in recent years, combined with poor sanitation, has allowed the disease to spread once more.
The health secretary, Pascoe Kase, said polio vaccinations had declined because local officials diverted health funds for other purposes. With assistance from the World Health Organization and the U.N. Children’s Fund, health workers have vaccinated more than 3 million people since the outbreak began.
During World War II, when it was an Australian colony, Papua New Guinea was a key battleground for control of the South Pacific. Japan invaded in 1942, but its forces were overextended and the Allies halted their advance, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Today, sunken warships and the Kokoda Trail, the site of heavy jungle fighting, are attractions for divers and intrepid hikers.
But Papua New Guinea remains a geopolitical battleground as Australia, China, Japan and the United States vie for influence. Earlier this month, Australia said it had reached agreement with Papua New Guinea to redevelop a naval base on Manus Island. From 2013 until last year, it spent millions operating a detention center on the island for unwanted asylum-seekers.
Australia, the largest donor in the South Pacific, is also helping to bankroll the APEC meeting, including providing security.
But in June, O’Neill met with Xi in Beijing and signed an agreement to accept loans and aid under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to develop economic and diplomatic ties through infrastructure projects around the world.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in Port Moresby last month that his government’s assistance came without restrictions.
“China is committed to friendship and common interests, and we put the greater good before our own interests,” he told reporters.
During Xi’s visit, he will see many signs of China’s growing influence.
Much of China’s aid has gone to high-visibility projects, including a $50 million renovation of the International Conference Center and the construction of a six-lane boulevard connecting it to nearby Parliament House.
China also brought in workers to repave the main highway, which links downtown and the government district.
Kramer said that road was better than most and that the only reason to improve it was for the Maseratis.
“Why are you digging up a perfectly good road and repaving it when there are so many bad roads in the country?” he asked. “The only thing it wasn’t suited for was high-performance vehicles.”
The flags of both China and Papua New Guinea fly over the Butuka Academy, the “PNG and China Friendship School” in Port Moresby that Xi is expected to visit. Rachel Russell, 20, who lives across the street from the school, said she was angry that more than half a dozen huge rain trees had been cut down by Chinese workers when they repaved the road.
“They chopped down the big trees and made it look like a desert,” she said as she sat in a new bus shelter with “China Aid” signs.
She said that she and her neighbors had blocked the workers from cutting down two large mango trees outside her house and making a parking lot.
“I was fighting with the Chinese people,” she said. “I was telling them not to chop the trees down. All the people came out. I was really, really mad.”
Russell, who works at a hotel where APEC visitors are among the guests, said she disliked seeing foreigners provide aid that she considers harmful.
“Why do we have to help these people when they are coming here to spoil our country?” she said. “A lot of people don’t like it. But what can they do?”