Port Moresby doesn’t know what’s about to hit it.
The Papua New Guinean capital, a tiny cluster of high rise and residential buildings housing some 300,000 people on the Pacific nation’s southern coast, has been preparing all year for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which begins on November 17. But for months, experts have been warning the city isn’t ready, and concerns remain over costs, infrastructure and security.
This is the first time Papua New Guinea (PNG), the poorest of the 21 countries in APEC, has hosted the summit. PNG ranks 110th worldwide for GDP, with an economy roughly the size of Cyprus or Afghanistan, according to the World Bank, and far behind richer APEC nations like Australia or China.
Some leaders won’t even be staying in the PNG capital – often ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the world – and instead are flying in and out of the country via the Australian city of Cairns, across the Coral Sea.
Other leaders are staying away altogether. US President Donald Trump decided not to attend the summit, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place, though Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Xi Jinping will both be in PNG.
Violence and disorder
In June, PNG’s government declared a nine-month state of emergency and sent in the military following intensive violence in the Southern Highlands province (SHP), where rioters looted businesses and torched a government plane and court buildings. One commentator described the situation in parts of the country as close to “civil war.”
“The full scale of crime and violence in Papua New Guinea is difficult to assess, given the limited coverage and poor quality of police and other data,” academic and PNG expert Sinclair Dinnen wrote in a report for Australia’s Lowy Institute in December. “Levels of unreported crime, including rape and other sexual offenses, are extremely high, particularly in rural areas where access to police is limited. Significant variations exist between urban and rural settings, as well as within regional, rural, and urban contexts.”
In part, violent crime is driven by the proliferation of illegal firearms, both homemade within PNG and smuggled in from neighboring Indonesia.
Since the 1990s, fear of crime and widespread instability has seen a “flourishing of non-state security providers” seeking to fill the gap, according to a World Bank report.
But while some of these firms have helped provide vital services to businesses that the local police or government simply are unable to, officials have warned that this booming private industry may be compounding the very problems it is intended to correct.
“There is a huge gap between the state’s ability to deliver public safety and the society’s need for collective peace and order,” a 2013 government report said. However, it warned that the growing presence of foreign private security firms “undermines the state’s ability and authority” to deliver these services.
Regional militaries have largely stepped in to fill the gap, with both New Zealand and Australian providing training and resources to their PNG counterparts.
Putting PNG on the map
For the PNG government, APEC seems like a silver bullet to many of its problems, raising the country’s profile and helping it break free of a reputation for chaos and danger that has dogged it for decades.
But some critics have warned that the meeting of regional leaders could do the very opposite, exposing systemic issues within PNG and embarrassing it in front of the world.
As far back as 2016, opposition lawmakers were urging the government to “swallow its pride” and cancel the summit, saying it would be a waste of resources.
Former PNG Prime Minister Mekere Morauta in July accused the current government of converting the two-day summit into a “cargo cult.”
“APEC will not solve PNG’s problems such as the rampant corruption, high unemployment, escalating crime, deteriorating state of health centers and hospitals as well as classrooms, roads, telecommunication and transport services,” he said.
Many were particularly enraged by the government’s purchase of 40 custom-made Maserati cars – which were flown in from Italy – for leaders to use while they’re in Port Moresby.
Neighboring Australia is bearing a large part of the bill for the summit – upwards of $90 million (130 million AUD), according to the ABC – as is China, which has been significantly increasing its footprint in the Pacific, to no small concern in Canberra and other regional capitals.
Critics of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who has been dogged by accusations of corruption for years, have accused him of seeking to distract from other issues with the splashy international conference, a repeat, some said, of the 2015 Pacific Games.
“Three years later, some of the South Pacific Games venues are still to be completed, others are not open to the general public, and many have been closed temporarily due to unpaid service bills accumulated from the Games,” according to Watna Mori, director of PNG Presence, a consultancy firm. “This is an example of what may happen to the infrastructure being built now to host the APEC summit.”
Last month, opposition lawmakers called for a nationwide stay at home strike over high government spending and alleged corruption in the run-up to APEC.
At a forum in Brisbane in May, O’Neill defended his government’s focus on APEC, saying the summit would put PNG on the map, ensuring “everyone will remember where Papua New Guinea is” and not confuse it with an African country.
Heavy security presence
O’Neill’s government has pulled out all the stops to ensure the summit goes off without a hitch, and residents of the capital can expect a massive security presence while world leaders are visiting PNG.
Police have vowed to crack down hard on any unlawful public assembly or protest around the summit, with Deputy Police Commissioner Jim Andrews saying in a statement last month that “all public servants including members of the Constabulary are duty bound and obligated towards ensuring that government efforts geared towards the 2018 APEC Summit is cohesively supported and maintained.”
Andrews warned police “would not hesitate to arrest and detain opportunists and trouble makers who defy lawful authority by disturbing peace and good order in the community.”
Alongside local police and military, many of the troops providing security for the summit will be foreign. Australia has sent 1,500 soldiers to Port Morseby, along with a Royal Australian Air Force squadron patrolling the country’s airspace, and the helicopter carrier HMAS Adelaide, which is currently moored off the city.
The US Coast Guard has also deployed around 95 troops to PNG, their boats are already patrolling parts of the waters around Port Moresby which have been declared restricted areas during the summit.
“The safety and security of the maritime environment surrounding Port Moresby will be critical during Leaders’ Week. Australia is pleased to enhance PNG’s maritime security arrangements for APEC by providing these capabilities,” Australia’s Minister for Defense Christopher Pyne said earlier this month.
“This support is a clear demonstration of Australia’s close and longstanding defense relationship with PNG and the interoperability our defense forces have developed over a number of decades.”