Pelt and road: Tribal welcome for Xi in PNG

Ayee Macaraig
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China's President Xi Jinping travels in a motorcade along the newly-dedicated Independence Drive Boulevard

Sporting parrot feathers, possum pelts and seashell necklaces, dozens of people from various tribes in Papua New Guinea serenaded China's president on Friday as he opened a new Chinese-funded road in the poor Pacific Island nation.

Xi Jinping unveiled a plaque marking the new "Independence Boulevard" outside Papua New Guinea's parliament, a symbolic show of the Asian giant's growing influence in the region.

On the first state visit by a Chinese leader, Papua New Guinea rolled out the red carpet welcome, with a military guard of honour, beats from wooden drums and a royal gun salute.

"I feel so excited about him coming and he will see new things (here). We feel proud that our country is going to develop this year," said Veldar Keiron, a 20-year-old student who was among those in parliament to welcome Xi.

Papua New Guinea has already signed up to Beijing's trillion-dollar "Belt and Road Initiative" that seeks to enhance sea and land trade routes between the Middle Kingdom and Eurasia.

Xi's state visit comes ahead of a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders this weekend in Port Moresby -- a meeting US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have skipped.

Critics say Trump's absence has left the door ajar for China to bolster its regional influence and Xi has been the star of the show so far.

"I would really like to shake his hand," a local official said as he jostled for position.

However some critics have dubbed the boulevard the "road to nowhere", saying the project could have better benefited people in far-flung rural areas.

"This Independence Boulevard carries the deep friendship between the peoples of our two countries. It is a token of China's best wishes for you," Xi told a crowd including Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

The Papua New Guinean leader responded calling China a "very good friend" of his country.

Xi will hold talks later Friday with Pacific Island nations and will almost certainly boost Chinese aid to the region.

While observers have expressed concern about China flexing its political and diplomatic muscle, residents said they valued the aid in a nation where social services are lacking.

"We are so happy that China has provided us with a school for our children, for their education," said Nesom Rambe, 40.