China, Australia vie for Pacific influence with duelling visits

(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi poses for a picture prior to meeting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, Italy October 31, 2021. Tiziana Fabi/Pool via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Canberra needs to “step up, not step back” in supporting the Pacific islands as China’s foreign minister arrived in the region seeking a sweeping regional deal on security and trade.

After Reuters reported a leaked draft communique showing China will seek an agreement with 10 Pacific island countries covering policing, security, trade, marine and data communication, Albanese said Australia “need(s) to respond to this”.

Albanese said his new Labor government had pledged to take more action to support islands nations on maritime security, climate change, boosting aid and allowing Pacific island citizens to migrate to Australia.

“We need to step up, not step back, which is what occurred under the former government,” he told Sky on Thursday.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong travels to Fiji on Thursday to meet with its prime minister, her first Pacific visit since being sworn in on Monday.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has arrived in the Solomon Islands, the first stop on an eight-nation tour, and hosts a meeting of Pacific foreign ministers in Fiji next week, where he will seek agreement on a five-year action plan.

‘OUR PEOPLE AND OUR PLANET’

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he would meet Australia’s Wong on Friday, and China’s Wang on Monday.

“I’ve been asked about Fiji’s agenda. At all tables, what matters most is our people and our planet, as well as respect for international law,” he wrote on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) on Thursday.

The Solomon Islands government said in a statement Wang would sign a number of cooperation agreements between the two countries in a two-day visit. The Chinese delegation of 44 includes vice ministers in foreign affairs, commerce, environment, and information officials.

The Solomon Islands recently signed a security pact with China despite objections from Australia, the United States, Japan and New Zealand, which fear it could give China a military foothold in the Pacific.

China rejects this, saying the pact is focused on domestic policing and criticism by Western countries was interference in the Solomon Island’s sovereign decision-making.

A draft communique circulated by China to Pacific islands has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, which says it showed China’s intent to control the region and “threatens regional stability”.

Albanese said Pacific islands made their own decisions.

“They are sovereign nations of course, and we need to respect that, but we need to be offering more support, otherwise we can see the consequences with the deal that was done with the Solomons. We know that China sees that as the first of many,” Albanese said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference in Washington D.C. the Pacific is New Zealand’s home and any security challenges should be addressed by Pacific nations.

“I see (the communique) as China’s trying to increase its engagement with sovereign nations, but expanding into a space that – actually the need around security arrangements – we are able to meet within our region,” she said.

China, Australia foreign ministers vie for influence with Pacific visits

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