As Gas Boom Falters in Papua New Guinea, China Steps In

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A plant at the Exxon Mobil-led natural-gas project in Papua New Guinea.

A plant at the Exxon Mobil-led natural-gas project in Papua New Guinea.


Photo:

ExxonMobil PNG Limited/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

When Papua New Guinea joined the ranks of the world’s significant energy exporters four years ago, the government was betting on a revenue windfall it hoped would transform the impoverished South Pacific nation better-known for jungles, violence and corruption.

But the payday from a $19 billion

Exxon Mobil
Corp.

-led natural-gas project has so far been a trickle, crimped by a downturn in gas prices that allowed Exxon and its partners to claim losses against royalty payments. A 7.5-magnitude earthquake in February that killed more than 100 people and left 300,000 homeless further strained government resources.

To bridge the revenue gap and revive its slowing economy, Papua New Guinea has increasingly turned to China. The government now owes the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China close to $1.9 billion in low-cost loans for infrastructure and other construction projects, almost a quarter of its total debt. That has raised concerns the country’s growing indebtedness is allowing Beijing to further expand its influence in the Pacific.

China’s stamp on Papua New Guinea will be on show in November when Pacific Rim leaders, including President Trump and China’s President

Xi Jinping,

gather in the capital, Port Moresby.

Delegates attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will meet in a convention center built by Chinese workers and paid for with a Chinese grant. Official motorcades will travel on a six-lane boulevard constructed and financed by Chinese loans.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on June 21. Almost a quarter of the country’s debt is owed to the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on June 21. Almost a quarter of the country’s debt is owed to the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China.


Photo:

Pool/Getty Images

“We took on APEC knowing it would be a massive challenge for such a small country,” said

Charles Abel,

Papua New Guinea’s treasurer and deputy prime minister. “It is a bold undertaking by our small country to introduce ourselves to the world.”

A former Australian colony of eight million, Papua New Guinea has long relied on foreign aid. The country has minimal infrastructure outside Port Moresby and companies typically negotiate terms with local landowners to gain access to resources—a knotty problem in a country with hundreds of ethnic groups.

The government has historically looked to Australia for assistance. The country, along with other APEC members, is also chipping in for the summit, covering about a third of the cost. Australia’s foreign minister,

Julie Bishop,

said the country wants to be the “natural partner of choice” for Papua New Guinea and other Pacific countries.

But China’s presence is becoming much more visible. Chinese loans have helped redevelop a port and airport in the second largest city, Lae. In November, China promised to build $3.5 billion of roads, a commitment that if realized would make it the country’s biggest aid donor, according to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s Pacific program. It also imports natural gas from Papua New Guinea and has invested in nickel mines, power stations and other projects.

During a visit by Prime Minister

Peter O’Neill

to Beijing in June, Papua New Guinea became the first Pacific country to sign up to China’s One Belt One Road, an initiative to build a global network of ports, railways, roads and pipelines. For Beijing, the program is a way to expand business and trade and extend strategic influence, in part by distributing loans.

Mr. Xi said during the visit that relations between the two countries had “entered a fast track, and political mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation have both reached a new level in history.” In July, Mr. O’Neill invited Pacific leaders to a meeting with Mr. Xi in Papua New Guinea ahead of APEC.

But China’s infrastructure push in the region has raised some alarms. A Chinese-financed building spree in Pakistan has been dogged by concerns about the country’s growing debt burden to Beijing. Sri Lanka’s government, unable to repay a Chinese loan for a port, last year granted a Chinese state company a 99-year lease on the facility.

The International Monetary Fund said Pacific nations including Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu have significant debts to China and face repayment pressures. Papua New Guinea is no exception.

“The speed and scale with which China is acquiring natural resources and amassing debt raise long-term concerns,” foreign-policy scholars

Gabrielle Chefitz

and

Sam Parker

wrote in a May paper for Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Standard & Poor’s in April lowered Papua New Guinea’s credit rating to B from B-plus, citing slower economic growth and expanding government deficits. It expects the ratio of government debt to gross domestic product to reach 40% by 2021 from 30% now.

Papua New Guinea’s Treasurer, Mr. Abel, said he has been closely following the loans offered by China to small Pacific nations. “There remains some concerns about the way that they do conduct business,” he said. “But in PNG’s case, we quite strictly manage our debt.”

A road damaged by a February earthquake near Mendi in Papua New Guinea's highlands region. The earthquake killed more than 100 people.

A road damaged by a February earthquake near Mendi in Papua New Guinea’s highlands region. The earthquake killed more than 100 people.


Photo:

Melvin LEVONGO/AFP/Getty Images

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said its assistance to Papua New Guinea and other Pacific Island nations has been welcomed by their governments. “China has provided assistance, especially assistance without any political conditions, to the Pacific Island nations, including Papua New Guinea,” the ministry said. “It is not targeting on any third party.

Mr. Abel, speaking of the Exxon-led gas project, conceded that for the hundreds of millions the government paid for its stake—through a state-owned oil company—“we have not had the corresponding revenue growth.”

Before production began in 2014, the country’s Treasury department estimated the project would boost government revenue by roughly $600 million, or two billion Kina, a year through 2021, rising to more than $1 billion, or 3.5 billion Kina, a year between 2022 and 2030. Instead, as of September 2017, roughly $45 million in royalties and development levies had been paid, according to the IMF.

“When commodity prices are depressed like they have been for the last few years, revenues to all joint venture participants, including government, are reduced,” Exxon said in a statement.

The shortfall has weighed on the commodity-dependent economy. The IMF in a December report estimated GDP grew 2.2% in 2017, down from 2.4% in 2016, far below the government’s predictions a few years ago that the country would grow 21%.

Write to Rob Taylor at rob.taylor@wsj.com and Rachel Pannett at rachel.pannett@wsj.com

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