The Apec leaders summit, held in Port Moresby over the weekend, was one of the most remarkable and tense in recent years. It ended with no joint statement from the leaders – a first in Apec history – and with the fight for dominance in the Pacific region between Australia, the US and Japan on one side and China on the other, coming out into the open. Here are five key things that occurred over a dramatic weekend:
No joint communique
As the leaders gathered in matching red and yellow satin shirts for the obligatory photograph, their smiles belied unresolved negotiations that occurred over the weekend. The agreement that usually comes out of these summits was thwarted by tensions between the US and China over trade and security, meaning that for the first time in Apec history, the summit closed without a joint statement from the leaders.
Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill said the breakdown in talks was due to “the two big giants in the room”.
Tensions were always going to be high between the US and China, countries which have been involved in an escalating trade war and which are currently in a tug-of-war for influence in the Pacific region.
BBQs and naval bases: the fight for the Pacific
This was the summit in which the unspoken tug-of-war for the Pacific came out into the open.
Chinese president Xi Jinping was attending Apec as a guest of government and arrived days before other leaders touched down. He visited roads and a school, built with Chinese money, and held a meeting with Pacific Island leaders, all of which were seen of ways for China to shore up support in a region that it has identified as geo-politically crucial.
Speaking to business leaders he also raised the prospect of a “hot war” in the region.
“History has shown that confrontation — whether in form of cold war, hot war or trade war — will produce no winners,” he said.
Meanwhile, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison hosted a barbecue with Pacific Island leaders at the Australian high commission.
Mike Pence, the US vice president, used a speech at the summit to implicitly warn Pacific nations off accepting financial help from China. He said infrastructure loans, which have been deployed by Beijing with Pacific countries, had “opaque” terms, and threatened the sovereignty of small nations.
During the summit, Tonga confirmed that the Chinese government was allowing it to defer repayments on a reported $160m loan received from China for building projects. The deferral is for five years and was announced just before onerous repayments were due to start.
In what was seen as a clear attempt to block China’s influence in the Pacific, the US announced it would partner with Australia in developing the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.
Argy bargy at the foreign minister’s office
The atmosphere was so fraught at the summit, and leaders were so keen to influence the final communique, that at one point Chinese officials attempted to “barge” into the office of PNG’s foreign minister in an 11th-hour bid to influence a draft summit communique.
Police had to be called to stop the office invasion, three sources with knowledge of the situation told AFP. But a Chinese foreign ministry official, Zhang Xiaolong, denied the incident, telling reporters: “It’s not true. It’s simply not true.”
What happened to the Maseratis?
One of the most controversial aspects of the preparation for the summit was the purchase of 40 Maseratis by the Papua New Guinean government to transport world leaders around for the summit.
Questions were raised about whether the cars would actually be used during the summit after New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she would not travel in a Maserati during the summit and diplomatic sources told Reuters that most leaders would travel in special armoured vehicles.
During the summit photographs emerged showing at least a dozen of the cars were sitting idle in a Port Moresby warehouse.
The government claims the cars will be sold on afterwards, meaning they would recoup the money spent on them, but locals raised doubts that the luxury cars, which retail in Australia for between $209,000 and $345,000 each, would be able to be incorporated into the PNG economy, where car-jackings are common, the status symbol is a Land Rover, and Maseratis are unknown.
Non-Chinese media blocked
There were numerous reports that non-Chinese media outlets were banned from reporting on meetings held by the Chinese president, who arrived early for meetings with the PNG prime minister and Pacific leaders.
On Friday, ABC journalist Natalie Whiting reported that only China’s state broadcaster CCTV had been allowed to plug in to get audio of an event between President Xi and Prime Minister O’Neill.
Later, non-Chinese media were kicked out of Xi’s meeting with Pacific Island leaders and bussed out away from the venue. This included media from the Pacific countries whose leaders were meeting with Xi. It was a move described by Reuters Beijing correspondent as “a real own goal for China, which is always banging on about mutual respect and trying to convince the public there’s nothing nefarious about their play for influence in the Pacific.”