China’s bid to set up a security pact with Pacific Island Countries should be considered by a regional Forum, the leaders of Samoa and New Zealand said on Tuesday, weeks after the Solomon Islands sparked uproar by signing a deal with China.
The Pacific Islands and their old allies, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, were caught off guard by the Solomon Islands’ security pact with China as it pushes to expand its influence in the region.
“The issues need to be considered in the broader context of what we have in place and what we want to do in terms of security provisions for the region,” Samoa’s Prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, told a news conference with her New Zealand counterpart, referring to the Pacific Islands Forum.
Leaders of the Forum’s members are due meet in mid-July in Fiji, their first in-person gathering since 2019.
China has dismissed criticism of its pact with the Solomon Islands, saying it poses no military threat and closer ties benefit everyone, and is promoting a proposal for a region-wide deal with almost a dozen Pacific countries covering policing, security and data communication cooperation.
Pacific leaders discussed the proposal with a top Chinese official last month but they have not agreed to it.
“The decision was that the group of countries felt that the appropriate modality of consideration of these kinds of proposals need to be passed through the Forum secretary,” Mata’afa said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said that under regional agreements, the Pacific Islands Forum was where security should be discussed.
“As a Forum we will come together, we’ll discuss these issues, we’ll of course, hopefully build consensus,” she said.
But consensus on the question of China is likely to remain a challenge when four members of the Forum – Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu – recognise Taiwan rather than Beijing.
Mata’afa said the region may re-consider its rule book on security at the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum next month.
Asked about “the frenzy” of interest from Australia and New Zealand in China’s engagement in the Pacific, she responded calmly.
“We are not frenzied,” she said at a joint press conference alongside Ardern.
“There are no discussions between Samoa and China on militarisation at all.”
The Samoan PM was one of a number of leaders to knock back a regional-wide security deal with China, saying the Pacific needed to discuss the matters as a region – something that will take place at the forthcoming PIF.
Pacific leaders are party to an agreement known as the Biketawa Declaration, signed in 2000, which requires countries to cooperate on many matter, including security, before seeking help from outside the region.
Mata’afa said the PIF meeting could explore whether Biketawa needs an upgrade or a revision.
“It’s a good opportunity for the region to consider security issues in the context of something that is current and to test the usefulness of the instruments that we already have in place,” Mata’afa said.
“If they’re not enough, then it’s an opportunity to have that discussion around that.”
Ardern said the Pacific had “the capability and the capacity to deal with security issues” on its own.
Mata’afa said she believed Micronesian nations, who had previously threatened to leave PIF, would arrive for the Fiji meeting after mediation talks last week.
“We’re very confident that Northern members of the family are returning to the fold, so to speak,” she said.