China says Pacific debt claims “ridiculous” after Julie Bishop raises concerns

Pehē ‘e he ‘amipasitoa Siaina ki ‘Aositelēlia’ ‘oku fakaoli e fakakaukau ‘o pehē ‘oku fakamanavahee’i ‘e Pīsingi, kolomu’a ‘o Siaina’ ‘a e mafai ‘o e fanga ki’i fonua iiki he Pasifiki ke nau malu’i honau taki taha fonua, ‘aki hono langa ha ngaahi langa lalahi kuo’ ne fakakavenga’i kinautolu ‘aki ha ngaahi mo’ua ‘oku ‘ikai mahino pe ‘e lava tā fakafoki. Ko ‘ene lau ‘eni hili ia ha pehē ‘e he Minisitā ki Muli ‘a ‘Aositelēlia’, Julie Bishop ‘oku ‘i ai ‘ene hoha’a ki he ngaahi fokotu’utu’u fakapa’anga ‘o ha ngāue ‘oku fai ‘e Siaina ‘i he Pasifiki’ te ne uesia e ngaahi fonua’a ni.

SYDNEY MORNING HERALD / PACNEWS

China’s ambassador has branded “ridiculous” the idea that Beijing is threatening
the sovereignty of small Pacific nations by building infrastructure that saddles them with unsustainable debt.

His comments followed remarks by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that the Australian government was concerned some Chinese financing arrangements in the Pacific would damage the island nations sovereignty and that Australia would
offer alternatives to Chinese infrastructure development.

Speaking in Canberra, ambassador Cheng Jingye indicated he was not aware of Bishop’s remarks but said the proposition China was creating so-called debt-traps for small nations was “ridiculous”.

“We have a growing economic co-operation with some of the island countries. They are on [an] equal footing and I think it’s mutually beneficial, as has been said by the local people – both the local people and both the government,” he said.

“The fact is there. I hope any comment will be made based on fact, rather than speculation.”

Cheng, who was at Parliament House on Tuesday morning to address an Australia China Business Council event, was trailed by waiting media for much of his way out the building, facing questions on tensions between Australia and China.

Bishop told Fairfax Media Australia on Monday Australia was concerned about the economic viability of small Pacific nations and did not want unsustainable debt burdens imposed on them.

“They are sovereign nations,” she said. “We want to ensure that they retain their sovereignty, that they have sustainable economies and that they are not trapped into unsustainable debt outcomes. The trap can then be a debt-for-equity swap and they have lost their sovereignty.”

She said Australia should take “a very proactive role” in offering Pacific nations alternatives to Chinese projects.

“What we don’t want is for countries to have no other options,” she said.

Sri Lanka last year handed over a large, strategic port to a Chinese company under a debt-for-equity swap after it was unable to meet loan repayments to China.

Cheng said China was “sensitive to any possible debt burden”. And asked whether China was deliberately overburdening countries with debt to ensnare them, Cheng said the proposition was “absurd”.

He also refused to say whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would be invited to visit China this year. It has been widely expected he would visit, and any slippage of that plan would be seen as a diplomatically bruising development.

Speaking at the same forum, Turnbull insisted the relationship – including strong economic ties – was better than was often shown in political and public debate.

“You’ll see in the media, and sometimes you'll see from politicians – and I know there’s been a bit of negativity expressed by my political opponents in the course of today’s sessions – a lot more negativity presented than is actually
the case.”

“I think there are discussions about bilateral exchanges at different levels. When there is any news, I will let you know.

There are discussions,” he said.

Earlier in a speech to the Australia China Business Council, Cheng said there needed to be “less bias and bigotry” in the relationship between the two countries, though afterwards he refused to say where these qualities lay.

He said there were “some difficulties, obviously”, in the relationship.

Labour foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong told the conference the major parties should avoid fighting over the China relationship. She said there would be differences with China from time to time but “the government should try and not make things worse”.

Papua New Guinea’s deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Charles Abel, told the Lowy Institute on Monday night that while Chinese aid and investment was providing opportunities to his country, it was also presenting challenges that Australia needed to help “balance”.

“Whilst we appreciate the interaction with China, there remains some concerns in terms of the way they do conduct business,” he said.

Kaniva Tonga News has a republication arrangement with PACNEWS

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