APEC fails to reach consensus as U.S.-China divide deepens

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – Asia-Pacific leaders failed to agree on a communique at a summit in Papua New Guinea on Sunday for the first time in their history as deep divisions between the United States and China over trade and investment stymied cooperation.

Competition between the United States and China over the Pacific was also thrown into focus with the United States and its Western allies launching a coordinated response to China’s Belt and Road program.

“You know the two big giants in the room,” Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said at a closing news conference, when asked which of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group could not agree.

O’Neill, who was chairman of the meeting, said the sticking point was over whether mention of the World Trade Organization and its possible reform should be in the Leaders’ Declaration.

“APEC has got no charter over World Trade Organization, that is a fact. Those matters can be raised at the World Trade Organization.”

The multilateral trade order that APEC was established in 1989 to protect is crumbling as Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific and U.S. tariffs strain relations in the region and divide loyalties.

A Leaders’ Declaration has been issued after every annual APEC leaders’ meeting since the first in 1993, the group’s website shows.

O’Neill said that as APEC host, he would release a Chairman’s Statement, though it was not clear when.

U.S. President Donald Trump did not attend the meeting and nor did his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attended instead of Trump.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived to great fanfare on Thursday and was feted by PNG officials. He stoked Western concern on Friday when he met Pacific island leaders to pitch his Belt and Road initiative.

The United States and its allies, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, countered on Sunday with a $1.7 billion plan to deliver reliable electricity and the internet to PNG.

PACIFIC THEATER

Wang Xiaolong, a senior economic official with China’s APEC delegation, said of the failure to agree on a joint statement that it was “not exactly a sticking point between any particular two countries”.

Most members affirmed their commitment to preserving the multilateral trading system and supported a robust and well-functioning WTO, he said.

“Frankly speaking, we are in a very early stage of those discussions and different countries have different ideas as to how to take that process forward,” Wang said.

One diplomat involved in the negotiations said tension between the U.S. and China, bubbling all week, erupted when the Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, objected during a leaders’ retreat to two paragraphs in a draft document seen by Reuters.

One mentioned opposing “unfair trade practices” and reforming the WTO, while another concerned sustainable development.

“These two countries were pushing each other so much that the chair couldn’t see an option to bridge them,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“China was angered that the reference to WTO blamed a country for unfair trade practices.”

Pence said in a blunt speech on Saturday there would be no end to U.S. tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods until China changed its ways. On Sunday, as he left the PNG capital of Port Moresby, he listed U.S. differences with China.

“They begin with trade practices, with tariffs and quotas, forced technology transfers, the theft of intellectual property. It goes beyond that to freedom of navigation in the seas, concerns about human rights,” Pence told reporters.

Pence also took direct aim at Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative, saying in his speech countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

“We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road,” he said. 

CENTER OF ATTENTION

The Belt and Road plan was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment from China.

APEC host PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure, and found itself feted by superpowers.

Xi opened a Beijing-funded boulevard, while Pence talked of a 400-year old King James Bible in the PNG parliament that he had played a role in bringing to the country.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China has recently turned its attention to the region with a raft of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.

PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato said his country did not need to pick sides.

“For us, we welcome Chinese investment, we welcome U.S. investment. Our foreign policy is to be friends of all, enemies of none.”

(This story was refiled to change the reference to Wang Yi’s title in paragraph 17)

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North Korea's new 'tactical' weapon test highlights military modernisation

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s claim last week that it had tested an unidentified “ultramodern tactical weapon” highlighted its desire to upgrade its conventional arms and reassure its military even as talks are under way to end its nuclear programme, analysts said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un witnessed the test of a newly developed tactical weapon that could serve as a “steel wall”, state media reported on Friday, without giving details of the weapon.

It was Kim’s first observation of a weapons test this year and could complicate already stalled nuclear talks with the United States, although Washington and Seoul downplayed the development in an apparent effort not to derail negotiations.

Experts say the test was part of Kim’s initiative to shift the mainstay of the conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.

“This is sort of like the North Korean version of military reform,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“If we have to find an underlying message to the outside world, it’s ‘Don’t underestimate us, we are modernising too.'”

New advanced weapons might be even more crucial if the country were to abandon at least some of its nuclear arsenal.

Although heavily-sanctioned Pyongyang is easily outspent in defence funding by Seoul and Washington, the North’s forward-deployed troops, guns and multiple-launch artillery rocket systems (MLRS) pose a significant threat to the allies.

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armoured vehicles, 810 fighter jets, 430 combatant vessels and 70 submarines, according to a 2016 assessment by the South’s defence ministry.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies said last week it has identified at least 13 undeclared missile bases inside North Korea.

The Washington-based think tank has also said Pyongyang has been developing hovercraft units for its 200,000-strong special forces as part of the military modernisation drive.

Kim has been pushing to modernise production lines at munitions factories and replace ageing weapons and technology since he took power in late 2011.

“The defence industry should develop and manufacture powerful strategic weapons and military hardware of our style, perfect its Juche-oriented production structure and modernise its production lines on the basis of cutting-edge science and technology,” he said in his 2018 New Year speech, referring to the long-held principle of self-reliance.

The two Koreas agreed during their September summit in Pyongyang to significantly reduce military tensions along the border, and the North has begun deactivating artillery deployed along the skirmish-prone western shore, Seoul’s defence ministry said.

But the pact did not include any removal of MLRS from forward-deployed areas, where some long-range guns and rocket launchers can still reach Seoul.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported the newly tested weapon was a new model of MLRS, citing an unnamed military source familiar with intelligence. Other experts suggested it might be a new, short-range missile.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said by touting a modernised weapon, Kim could seek to reassure hard-line military generals and the public in North Korea who may be worried about a nuclear-free future.

“With Kim having publicly declared the economy a new priority and saying the North would denuclearise, many in the military who saw a decline in interest and support could be doubtful and anxious because he has not secured significant concessions like an end-of-war declaration,” Kim, the professor said.

“It could have been necessary for him to consolidate the nation even though such a field guidance would give a negative signal to the outside.”

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Beijing says no developing country will fall into debt trap by cooperating with China

BEIJING (REUTERS) – China’s foreign ministry said on Sunday (Nov 18) that no developing country would fall into a debt trap simply because of its cooperation with Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying made the comment in an online statement responding to remarks made by US Vice-President Mike Pence.

“No developing country will fall into debt difficulties because of cooperation with China,” Hua said.

“On the contrary, cooperating with China helps these countries raise independent development capabilities and levels, and improves the lives of the local people.” Speaking at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit on Saturday, Pence took aim at China’s Belt and Road initiative, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

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China-U.S. rivalry casts shadow over APEC meeting in PNG

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – Wide differences between China and the United States dominated an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Papua New Guinea on Sunday, with little evidence of consensus as officials struggled to frame a closing statement acceptable to all.

Competition between the United States and China over the Pacific was also thrown into focus with Western allies launching a coordinated response to China’s Belt and Road program, promising to jointly fund a $1.7 billion electrification and internet project in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Tonga, on the other hand, signed up to the Belt and Road and won deferment on a Chinese loan, a Tongan official said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, as he left the PNG capital of Port Moresby, listed U.S. differences with China, a day after he directly criticized its Belt and Road program.

“They begin with trade practices, with tariffs and quotas, forced technology transfers, the theft of intellectual property. It goes beyond that to freedom of navigation in the seas, concerns about human rights,” Pence told reporters traveling with him.

Differences over trade were making it difficult to draft a summit communique that members would sign, with Chinese officials rebuffed in an attempt to meet PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato on the issue.

Pato confirmed to Reuters that Chinese officials had wanted to see him, adding they had not made “necessary arrangements” for a meeting.

He said the multilateral trade system was the sticking point in drafting the communique.

“If there are last minute issues then, like what we’re doing now, we will talk through them and try and reach a compromise,” he said.

At a Pacific Islands Forum in September, there was a similar dispute when China’s envoy demanded to be allowed to address the forum before the prime minister of Tuvalu.

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  • China says no developing country will fall into debt trap by cooperating with China

PNG ELECTRICITY PROJECT

APEC host PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure.

The United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand unveiled a $1.7 billion plan to provide electricity and internet to much of PNG, the first step of a plan that will counter China’s Belt and Road spending and political influence in the region.

The Western allies’ plan would see 70 percent of PNG’s population getting electricity by 2030, from 13 percent now, and was showcased as a demonstration of commitment to the strategically important Pacific region.

China had its success, with Tonga signing up to the Belt and Road and getting a five-year deferral on a concessional loan just before it was due to commence principal repayments.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived in Port Moresby on Thursday, has been feted by PNG officials and stoked Western concern on Friday when he held a meeting with Pacific island leaders in which he pitched the Belt and Road initiative.

China has poured investment into development projects in the region, including plans to build a large hydropower generation plant in PNG.

The Western plan for PNG comes as diplomatic sources told Reuters that Australia and the United States were concerned about the debt burden that the Chinese plant could have on it.

Belt and Road was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment from China.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China has only recently turned its attention to the region with a raft of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.

On Saturday, Pence took direct aim at Belt and Road, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

China’s foreign ministry responded by saying no developing country would fall into a debt trap simply because of its cooperation with Beijing.

“On the contrary, cooperating with China helps these countries raise independent development capabilities and levels, and improves the lives of the local people,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

In Port Moresby, Foreign Minister Pato said his country did not need to pick sides.

“For us, we welcome Chinese investment, we welcome U.S. investment. Our foreign policy is to be friends of all, enemies of none.”

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Australia surf lesson turns bloody after shark attack

SYDNEY (AFP) – A man taking part in a surf lesson off Australia’s east coast suffered serious cuts after a shark attack on Saturday (Nov 17)- the latest in a spate of recent encounters.

The attack is a sixth off Australia’s beaches in two months, amid public debate about how to reduce the risk of encounters between sharks and the growing number of people using the ocean for leisure.

The 24-year-old was wading waist-deep in waters off Seven Mile Beach some 130 kilometres (81 miles) south of Sydney when he “felt a forceful lashing motion against his legs”, New South Wales (NSW) Ambulance said.

He had “significant cuts and haemorrhage as well as several puncture wounds to his wetsuit and right leg… and cuts to his hand”, NSW Ambulance duty operations manager Inspector Jordan Emery told reporters on Saturday.

The beach was closed and authorities sought to identify the shark breed involved.

Australia has one of the world’s highest incidences of shark attacks, but fatalities remain rare.

There have been 13 shark attacks off the vast continent’s coast this year, including one death after a swimmer was mauled by a shark in the Whitsunday Islands in early November, according to data from Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

There were 15 attacks – one fatal – last year, and 17 encounters and two deaths in 2016, the data showed.

NSW hosted an international conference with marine experts in 2015 after a sharp increase in attacks across Australia that year to 22, including the death of a Japanese surfer after his legs were torn off by a shark.

Most recently, the Queensland government held meetings with tourism operators and experts this month after the Whitsundays incident.

State officials had captured six sharks using baited lines and killed them in the wake of two other attacks at the Whitsundays in September.

But conservationists are critical of the use of such drum lines, saying they are a blunt instrument often catches other marine creatures as well.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has trialled non-lethal measures such as aerial drones to track shark movements and “smart” drum lines that alert authorities to their presence.

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China defers Tonga's loan payments as Pacific nation signs up to Belt and Road

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – Tonga has signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative and has received a reprieve from Beijing on the timing of debt payments shortly before an onerous schedule to repay loans was due to start.

Lopeti Senituli, political advisor to Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, told Reuters by email on Sunday that Tonga had signed a Belt and Road memorandum of understanding, and that the concessional loan had been deferred for five years.

Tonga is one of eight island nations in the South Pacific that owe significant debt to China. The deferment came just as Tonga was set to commence principal repayments on the debt, which is expected to put severe strain on its finances.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to request for comment on Sunday.

Tonga’s financial reliance on China dates back just over a decade after deadly riots in the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa, destroyed much of the small Pacific nation’s central business and government districts.

The government rebuilt the city with Chinese financing, and the roughly $65 million in China’s initial loans to the island now exceeds $115 million, due to interest and additional borrowings. This represents almost one-third of Tonga’s annual gross domestic product, budget papers show

The issue of Chinese-issued debt has been at the forefront of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, held in Papua New Guinea (PNG). On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized President Xi Jinping’s flagship programme, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

While most Pacific island nations are not APEC members, their representatives were invited to attend events, and have been engaged in talks with larger regional neighbors such as China and Australia.

China’s official Belt and Road website reported last week that Fiji had made a commitment to Belt and Road, joining the likes of Samoa and PNG.

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U.S. allies counter China with alternative electricity plan for PNG

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – The United States and three of its Pacific allies said on Sunday they would work with Papua New Guinea to ensure most of the country had access to electricity by 2030, as Western powers seek to contain China’s economic influence in the region.

Leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand met in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit to unveil the plan, which seeks to boost the power grid’s reach to 70 percent of the population from 13 percent currently.

PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure. The developing nation has emerged as a flashpoint in Washington’s and Beijing’s competing strategic efforts to lock-in alliances in the region.

“This initiative will also be open to other partners that support principles and values which help maintain and promote a free, open, prosperous and rules based region,” a White House statement said.

The four nations did not specify what kind of power-generation would be used, or the cost of the plan. However, an Australian government spokeswoman told Reuters it would contribute A$25 million ($18.3 million) in the first year of the initiative.

China has poured investment into development projects in the region, including plans to build a large hydropower generation plant in PNG under President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road initiative.

Belt and Road was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment from Beijing.

On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence took direct aim at Belt and Road at an APEC address, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China has only recently turned its attention to the region with a raft of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.

($1 = 1.3633 Australian dollars)

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Apec can set global direction on trade, do more in shaping rules for digital economy: PM Lee

PORT MORESBY – Leadership from a regional forum of Asia-Pacific economies is needed more than ever given mounting pressures against multilateralism and free trade, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“We can set the global direction and encourage others to follow our example of working together, rather than of going it alone,” he added.

Mr Lee spoke on Sunday (Nov 18) at a leaders’ retreat in the capital of Papua New Guinea, which is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. The leaders were discussing current global challenges and the future of digital economy in Apec.

Apec can do much more to shape progressive digital trade rules for emerging areas in the digital domain such as e-payments and digital identity, he said.

Mr Lee began his speech by congratulating Papua New Guinea for successfully hosting the annual summit.

He noted that Apec started in 1989 as an informal gathering of 12 like-minded economies that shared a vision of an integrated, vibrant and prosperous Asia-Pacific. The grouping now has 21 members.

The hope was that member economies could cooperate on a non-binding and voluntary basis to liberalise trade, he said, adding that Apec has succeeded in this core mission.

Citing how tariffs in Apec today are a third of what they were at its founding, he said the grouping has made steady progress towards the target goals of free trade and investment that were set in Bogor, Indonesia in 1994.

He called on fellow leaders to press on with efforts to form a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

The FTAAP is a long-term goal to link Pacific Rim economies and harmonise various regional and bilateral free trade agreements.

Mr Lee said the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which will come into force in December, is an “encouraging development”.

The revised free trade pact between 11 nations, minus the United States, is seen as one of the pathways to the FTAAP.

Mr Lee also welcomed other complementary regional integration initiatives that can bring the world closer together.

Asean and six partner countries including Australia, China and Japan had agreed last week to reach a deal on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2019, a free trade pact that is seen as another pathway to the FTAAP.

Besides trade, Apec can also positively influence the emergence of the global digital economy, Mr Lee said.

He made the point that virtually every type of cross border transaction now has a digital component, such as data management, cybersecurity or internet connectivity.

Platform companies such as Alibaba and Amazon Digital are turning millions of small enterprises around the world into micro-multinationals, he said, exponentially increasing the number of participants in the digital economy.

But current trade rules have to be updated to address the increasing digitalisation of trade and accommodate more sophisticated transactions and consumers, he added.

For instance, new mechanisms to deal with cross border flows of data are needed, Mr Lee said.

At the same time, the mechanisms must allow for regulation to keep data secure and protect privacy.

Mr Lee said Japan, Australia and Singapore are co-convenors of a widely supported World Trade Organisation effort to develop new rules in e-commerce, which will provide business certainty and keep the e-commerce space open.

But Apec can do much more to advocate standards, he added.

“These progressive digital trade rules will support SMEs’ digitalisation efforts, and also facilitate investments by the big players, global digital companies,” he said, urging Apec leaders to press on with other initiatives to support businesses in adopting digital technologies.

“Our goal of a productive, innovative, and sustainable digital economy is entirely achievable,” he said.

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Why I pedal my rickshaw in Delhi’s toxic air

“My eyes hurt and I struggle to breathe while pedalling my rickshaw. My body tells me to stop and run away from Delhi’s toxic smog, but I have to keep going to earn for my family. Where else would I go? The streets are our home,” says Sanjay Kumar.

He came to Delhi five years ago from the eastern state of Bihar in search for a job, but couldn’t find success. He chose to be rickshaw puller to feed himself and send some money to his family.

That left him very little to rent a house, and he started sleeping on the streets.

“I long for a bed but I know that’s a distant dream. I long for proper meals but that too is scarce. The least I expect is to breathe clean air, but in winter months that too has become impossible. You can go to the comfort of your house, but I have to be on the street all the time,” he adds.

Air quality in the city worsens every year in November and December as farmers in the neighbouring states burn crop stubble to clear their fields. People also set off firecrackers to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali and it adds to the unhealthy cocktail of toxic gases.


Delhi has thousands of rickshaw pullers who provide last-mile connectivity to people. But as pollution levels reach 30 times the safe limit in some areas in winters, rickshaw pullers are worst affected.

Pedalling a rickshaw puts extra pressure on the lungs, and severe pollution makes the situation worse. The tiny toxic particles, known as PM2.5, can get deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream.

India’s Supreme Court also recently took notice of their plight. While hearing a pollution-related petition recently, the court told the government that advising people to stay indoors wasn’t a solution.

“They are doing heavy duty manual work. You cannot tell them that you stop your work because it is unsafe for you to work in the morning. This is a very critical situation,” the court said.

Every rickshaw puller I met was either coughing or complained about difficulty in breathing. Some of them even struggled to finish sentences. At one metro station, the smog was so thick that one could almost taste ash. And the visibility was so poor that it was impossible to see beyond a few meters.

But rickshaw pullers could still be seen on the street, trying hard to pedal in the smog.

Jai Chand Jadhav, who came to Delhi seven years ago from the eastern state of West Bengal, says taking a break is not an option.


“I earn around 300 rupees ($4 ;£3) a day and spend some of that on buying food and save the rest for my wife and two children. My family depends on me, so I have to keep working – even if I am struggling to breathe,” he says.

Mr Jadhav starts his day at 6am and goes to a nearby metro station to pick early morning commuters. He works until 11am before trying to find free food at temples and charity homes.

He spends money on buying meals only when he can’t find free food. Mr Jadhav continues to work until midnight and rests only when there are no commuters. He gets his evening meals from some restaurants which distribute leftover food to the homeless.

But it’s not always easy to find free food and going hungry is not very uncommon for the rickshaw pullers of Delhi. “I am used to sometimes pedalling my rickshaw without eating anything and I can handle that. But smog is the worst. It makes me feel like I am pedalling with a 50kg weight on my chest,” he says.

He has been unwell in the past few days and his coughing became worse the day after Diwali last week.

“I don’t understand why people set off firecrackers when the air is so bad. They go back to their homes but people like me have to suffer the consequences of their actions. People are just so insensitive in this city,” he adds.

As he continues to talk, several rickshaw pullers gather around him – each complaining about the smog. One of them is Anand Mandal, who ended his 18-hour-long work day at midnight.

“Such long working hours are really tough. My chest is burning and I struggle to breathe properly, specially while pedalling. Last year, a colleague of mine had similar symptoms for days and he ended up in a hospital and couldn’t work for months. I am really scared and praying that it doesn’t happen to me,” he says.

It’s the same story for most rickshaw pullers across the city.

Himasuddin, who started working in old Delhi two decades ago, says the air was never so bad in Delhi.

“As a rickshaw puller, I hardly contribute to pollution. Ours is a clean way of transportation. But it’s ironic that we are the worst affected from the toxic smog,” he says.

He wants the government to help rickshaw pullers.

“At the very least they can give us temporary shelter. We are dying a slow death and it’s not even our fault. Nobody cares about us as if we don’t even exist,” he says.

His frustration is understandable. The state and federal governments both routinely come up with “stay indoors” during the smog season.

But unfortunately this is not an option for Delhi’s rickshaw pullers, who have to just pedal on.

“I guess hunger is a bigger problem than pollution for us. And that’s why nobody cares. But we have to continue working no matter what,” Himasuddin adds before disappearing into the thick smog.

Pictures by Ankit Srinivas

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A Rural Patch of Hong Kong Where Rare Birds Sing and Developers Circle

HONG KONG — Squeezed tightly between two megacities with a combined population of 20 million are some of East Asia’s most important wetlands, where rare birds sing out amid traditional shrimp ponds.

Look up, and looming right above this rustic setting are the crush of skyscrapers in Shenzhen, China, almost close enough to touch. Just out of view behind some hills to the south are the congested streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

But in this corner of northwest Hong Kong, tens of thousands of cormorants, herons, egrets, sandpipers and other birds, including endangered species like the black-faced spoonbill, gather each winter to feed on the mud flats. Eucalyptus trees line a path that cuts along the shrimp and fishponds, where small restaurants serve up the day’s harvest.

For bird watchers, bike riders and day-trippers from Hong Kong, the wetlands offer welcome respite from the city’s crowds, even if the sound of birdcalls is regularly interrupted by the clank of hammers and the beep-beep of reversing vehicles from an industrial district nearby.

But in a place where land prices are among the most expensive in the world, shopping malls and apartment blocks are far more profitable than shellfish, and the area is increasingly attractive to developers.

“In a few years, this will all be housing,” said Yip Ka-kit, 32, as he took a break from riding his bicycle around Nam Sang Wai, a 400-acre wedge of the wetlands bounded by two rivers and filled with fish ponds and reed beds. “People in Hong Kong only care about the economy.”

Signs warning of the punishment for arson — up to life in prison — hang prominently in the wetlands, a reminder of one of their most imminent threats: fire. A series of blazes this spring scorched parts of Nam Sang Wai.

It is not the first time suspicious fires have burned in the area, which environmentalists and officials believe may have been set to undermine its ecological value.

Police say they are investigating, but have arrested no suspects. Last year during a public hearing, a representative of a company that has applied to develop the area denied it had any role in the blazes.

“There has been a longtime struggle between the landowners and preservationists about the future of that piece of wetland,” said Eddie Chu, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council who represents the area and has called for protection of Nam Sang Wai.

Seen from above, the wetlands look like a net, with thin bands of land looping around blue blocks of water.

For centuries, rice paddies filled the area. Then beginning in the 1940s, the people who worked this land, many of them refugees from war and political chaos in China, turned the paddies into fishponds that earned far more than rice.

For decades, landowners have sought to develop the area, only to be rebuffed by the courts and government agencies. Last year the local planning board rejected the most recent proposal from a developer because of concerns about the potential loss of wetlands. The developer said it would appeal.

The total size of the wetlands area is about 4,350 acres, equivalent to five of Manhattan’s Central Park. Part of the wetlands are off limits to large-scale development, including the Mai Po Nature Reserve, which is protected under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation of wetlands.

The reserve includes traditional shrimp farming ponds that have largely disappeared from the rest of China. The ponds, known as gei wai, make use of the tides to suck in young shrimp from Deep Bay. The ponds are then closed off, allowing the shrimp to grow in protected lagoons, until they are harvested by draining the water during an ebb tide.

The World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong operates 21 gei wai in the reserve. The shrimp are harvested at night.

One night several pounds of shrimp were netted as a group of environment officials from mainland China watched and later dined on the shrimp, which were accompanied by soy sauce, chili peppers and beers.

“When we harvest there are small fish and shrimp we don’t want, and the birds come and eat,” said Wen Xianji, assistant director of the Mai Po reserve. “This traditional way of aquaculture benefits both humans and birds.”

The nature reserve has the added protection of its location along Hong Kong’s border with Shenzhen, where permits limit entry from the Hong Kong side, and a 15-foot fence topped with barbed wire blocks people from crossing from the mainland.

Still, poachers do sometimes visit by boat to catch mudskippers, amphibious fish used in Chinese medicine.

But other areas nearby, like Nam Sang Wai, have less concrete protections.

The most recent development proposal in Nam Sang Wai would have included apartments for 6,500 people.

The developer, a joint venture between a family that has long owned the land and Henderson Land Development, a large Hong Kong property company, said it would follow a model like the London Wetland Center, which included a residential development that financed a habitat preservation project.

The proposed development itself would take up less than 10 percent of Nam Sang Wai’s 400 acres, with the remainder preserved as managed wetlands, its backers say.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the plan.

“So far from what we’ve seen the scale of development is not compatible with the area,” said Woo Ming-chuan, conservation officer for the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society. “It’s quite sensitive and unique, and they want to build residential towers.”

Ms. Woo said she believed any plan that sacrifices some of the wetlands would only encourage further encroachment.

“We are afraid that once approved it will be a precedent for similar applications in the future,” she said.

For now, the area remains a popular weekend destination for walkers, cyclists and nature lovers, with the entrance to the wetlands a short walk from a shopping mall that sits atop a rail station.

A short sampan ride takes visitors across an eddy of the Shan Pui River. The captain can often be found sleeping on the boat, waiting for passengers to board the small wooden craft, with a maximum capacity of seven. It is the only ferry in Hong Kong that traverses a river and the only one human-powered.

Among people who visit the area, the fear is that the forces of development will eventually win out.

“Of course I want them to preserve this place,” said Mr. Yip, the cyclist. “If they fill in everywhere in Hong Kong with houses, there will be nothing left to do here.”

Follow Austin Ramzy on Twitter: @austinramzy

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