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China's Xi promises support to Papua New Guinea amid regional tension

By Philip Wen
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the China-Aid PNG Independence Boulevard Project ahead of the APEC summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 16 November 2018. Mast Irham/Pool via REUTERS

By Philip Wen

PORT MORESEBY (Reuters) - China has made a strategic decision to "stand together with fellow developing countries" such as Papua New Guinea, President Xi Jinping said on Friday, the first full day of his state visit to the Pacific island nation.

The visit, ahead of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit Xi will address on Saturday, comes amid heightened trade and diplomatic tension in a region that was until recently an almost exclusive sphere of influence of staunch U.S. ally Australia.

"Together we can go on to build many more roads to prosperity, openness and friendship," Xi said just before opening a new Beijing-funded six-lane boulevard, bedecked with red flags for the occasion.

APEC was established almost 30 years ago to remove barriers to trade in an area home to numerous tiny island economies reliant on third party aid and loans.

China, which is stepping up its presence in the region, has recently faced criticism from some PNG officials for its lavish gifts, given at the potential expense of aid and development.

PNG is rich in resources, particularly oil and gas, and has strategically placed ports.

Xi was the first world leader to arrive in Port Moresby for APEC, at which China has said it will announce "important measures for further cooperation", a phrase Western diplomats believe probably means formally extending its Belt and Road plans into the Pacific.

Xi is scheduled to meet the leaders of several Pacific countries on Friday afternoon.

First proposed by Xi in 2013, the Belt and Road promotes expanding land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars pledged for infrastructure development.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said on Friday he valued the strong support of the Chinese government to develop PNG.

(Reporting by Philip Wen in PORT MORESBY; additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)