WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and a 20-person delegation arrived in the Solomon Islands on Thursday at the start of an eight-country tour that comes amid growing concerns over military ambitions and Beijing financial institutions in the South Pacific region.
China says the trip builds on a long history of friendly relations between Beijing and the island nations.
But Australia was quick to counter that decision by sending its own foreign minister Penny Wong to Fiji to bolster its support in the Pacific. Wong had been at work just five days after an Australian election and had just returned from a meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday evening.
In Fiji, Wong said it was up to each island nation to decide what partnerships they formed and what agreements they signed, but urged them to consider the benefits of staying with Australia.
“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached and doesn’t impose unsustainable financial burdens,” Wong said. “We are a partner that will not erode Pacific priorities or institutions.”
Meanwhile, the Solomon Islands Media Association called on its members to boycott a press conference in the capital, Honiara, held by Wang and his Solomon Islands counterpart, Jeremiah Manele, following a meeting between the of them.
Indeed, only selected media were invited to the event and the schedule allowed only one question to Wang by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
“This is a tough call to make regarding the media boycott for Thursday’s press event,” association president Georgina Kekea wrote on Twitter. “Our protest is for our government to see our disappointment. They failed us and they failed to protect #democracy.
According to an official Chinese summary of the meeting, Wang told his counterpart that China would firmly support the Solomon Islands in its efforts to maintain national security and territorial integrity, while Manele called the visit historic and significant. “an important step in relations” between the two countries.
China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last month in a move that sent shockwaves around the world.
The pact has raised fears that China could send troops to the island nation or even establish a military base there, not far from Australia. The Solomon Islands and China say there are no plans for a base.
In another move from China, a draft document obtained by The Associated Press shows that Wang hopes to strike a deal with 10 smaller Pacific countries during his visit. The comprehensive deal covers everything from security to fisheries, and is seen by at least one Pacific leader as an attempt by Beijing to take control of the region.
Wang hopes the countries will endorse the pre-written deal in a joint statement after a May 30 meeting in Fiji with the other foreign ministers.
During her 10-day visit, Wang also plans to stop in Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
Earlier, new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had sent Wong to Fiji because Australia needed to “step up” its efforts in the Pacific.
“We have to respond to this because it is China that is looking to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since World War II,” he told Reuters. Australian Broadcasting Corp.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that in recent years, exchanges and cooperation between Beijing and island nations have grown in a development that has been welcomed by Pacific countries.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.