China’s foreign minister to meet with Pacific nations amid push for sweeping regional deal

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China’s foreign minister will meet with his Pacific counterparts in a crucial meeting on Monday during which China is expected to encourage Pacific countries to sign up to a sweeping regional economic and security deal.

The meeting comes midway through foreign minister Wang Yi’s marathon tour of the Pacific, visiting eight countries in 10 days, in a move that security experts have said represents a dramatic “uptick in tempo” of China’s push for influence in the region.

Wang arrived in Fiji’s capital of Suva Saturday, after visits to Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Samoa and is due to meet with Fijian prime minister this morning.

He will then host the virtual China-Pacific Foreign Ministers meeting, with foreign ministers from around the region joining virtually. It is expected that ministers representing all of the Pacific countries who recognise China diplomatically will participate in the call.

This is only the second time the foreign ministers meeting has been held, after the inaugural meeting last October.

At the meeting, ministers are expected to discuss a proposed region-wide security deal. The deal, which was leaked last week, covers everything from a free trade area with the region, to providing humanitarian and Covid relief. It also lays out China’s vision for a much closer relationship with the Pacific, especially on security matters, with China proposing it would be involved in training police, cybersecurity, sensitive marine mapping and gaining greater access to natural resources.

The leak of the proposed regional deal came just one month after the signing of a controversial bilateral security deal signed by Solomon Islands and China, that caused huge alarm across the West, prompting high-level diplomatic visits from Australia, New Zealand and the US all of whom sought to urge the Solomon Islands government not to sign it.

Solomon Islands was Wang’s first stop on his eight-country tour last week, before he went on to Kiribati and met with president, Taneti Maamau.

A Kiribati official, who was not authorised to speak to media, said the pair had discussed fisheries, education and health, as well as trade and tourism opportunities, and that a security arrangement between the countries was not on the cards.

Samoa, which Wang visited on Saturday, signed a bilateral agreement with China promising “greater collaboration”, the details of which are unclear.

The Samoan government confirmed in a press release on Saturday that the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, and the Samoan prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, had met and discussed “climate change, the pandemic and peace and security”.

Local media were invited to witness the signing of a deal, but no questions were taken.

The Samoan release said China would continue to provide infrastructural development support to various Samoan sectors and there would be a new framework for future projects “to be determined and mutually agreed”.

After Fiji, Wang is scheduled to visit Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

In a duel for influence, Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, was in Fiji on Friday, reaffirming Australia’s commitment to the region and promoting the new government’s more ambitious targets on emissions reduction. Climate change, which is an acute existential threat to Pacific island nations, has been a point of tension in the relationship between the Pacific and Australia, which has been seen as a laggard on climate action.

The prime minister of Fiji praised Wong after the meeting, saying he had a “wonderful meeting” with Wong after she travelled to the country in her first solo overseas visit since being sworn in.

“Fiji is not anyone’s back yard – we are a part of a Pacific family,” Bainimarama later wrote on Twitter. “And our greatest concern isn’t geopolitics – it’s climate change.”

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS