The new Pacific Islands Forum secretary general has expressed concerns about the U.S-China rivalry in his first open press conference since starting the role.

Baron Waqa also said he was ‘truly concerned’ about the ongoing crisis in New Caledonia, which has been gripped by civil unrest since May.

Waqa assumed the key diplomatic role despite misgivings among some Pacific leaders over his track record as Nauru president.

The Pacific’s new top diplomat says it will be “hard” for the region to deal with China if Beijing behaves aggressively, or disregards the sovereignty of smaller island countries.

Baron Waqa — who was contentiously appointed the new secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this year — has also criticised Paris for its response to unrest in New Caledonia, saying it risks fuelling more unrest by ramping up its security presence in the territory and sending some pro-independence activists charged over deadly riots to jail in France.

In 2018 Waqa famously clashed with Chinese diplomats while chairing the PIF leaders meeting in Nauru as the country’s president, labelling one Chinese official “crazy” and “insolent” when the delegation stormed out of the room.

Waqa started as secretary general last month, and gave his first open press conference at the PIF Secretariat’s headquarters in the Fijian capital Suva Monday.

Australian officials have accused Beijing of trying to bypass and sideline PIF — in part because three PIF members maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, rather than the People’s Republic of China.

When he was asked about the 2018 incident and managing PIF’s relationship with China, Waqa said that geopolitics could be “nasty” and that the contest between great powers could endanger smaller Pacific nations trying to protect their independence.

“If China behaves like that, continues to behave like that disregarding our sovereignty … to be part of the region [you need to engage] in a very genuine and constructive way,” he said.

“If [China] can’t do that, then it’s hard,” he said.

While Nauru maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan rather than China in 2018 when the spat occurred, the Pacific nation switched recognition to Beijing early this year.

China has also been pressing Taiwan’s remaining three Pacific allies — Tuvalu, Palau and the Republic of Marshall Islands — to make the switch as well.

Waqa said most Pacific nations now recognised China, and that many countries appreciated Beijing’s contribution to the region.

But he stressed that it was up to individual Pacific nations to decide their own diplomatic affairs, saying larger countries shouldn’t try to “divide” the region.

“These [countries] are, even though small, they’re sovereign. They’re fully independent. And they align themselves with Taiwan,” he said.

“So we will make sure that the interests of our members are well protected.”

The secretary general also suggested that Western countries like the United States and Australia were to blame for escalating tensions in the Pacific because they were so intent on pushing back on growing Chinese influence.

“It’s not just about China coming in and trying to take over. It’s also about others’ response,” he said.

“We don’t want them to fight in our backyard here. Take that elsewhere.”

The secretary general was also asked about PIF’s approach to the ongoing crisis in New Caledonia, which is still dealing with serious unrest more than seven weeks after riots exploded in May.

Waqa said he was “truly concerned” by the instability in New Caledonia and the situation in the French Pacific territory was still “quite volatile” even though France has now lifted a state of emergency.

France has sent more than 3,000 police to the territory to help restore order, and last month also shipped in armoured vehicles to help authorities dismantle roadblocks which have sprung up in parts of the archipelago.

But Waqa suggested that the increased police and security presence could instead exacerbate tensions.

“The movement of weapons and other vehicles you referred to, it’s something we and everyone in the region are equally concerned about,” he said.

“We’d like to see the issue in New Caledonia simmer [down] quickly. And with this build-up, we won’t do justice to that.”

The secretary general said PIF Forum chair, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, had also raised concerns with Paris about its decision to send seven pro-independence activists charged over the riots to jails in France.

Brown has offered for PIF to help mediate between France and both loyalist and pro-independence forces in New Caledonia, but Paris has seemed lukewarm at best towards the idea.

Waqa was appointed as the new secretary general in the wake of a split between Micronesian countries and their Melanesian and Polynesian counterparts.

But some Pacific leaders were anxious about the appointment because ofWaqa’s track record as president of Nauru, with critics accusing him of cracking down on the media and his political opponents.

Waqa brushed aside questions about those concerns, saying critics were giving only “one side of the story” and that the issues were “irrelevant at this time”.

“I will run the Forum according to the best practices, getting everyone working together, and respecting each other,” he said.