New centre-left Chinese and Australian governments have launched rival bids to woo Pacific island nations, both sending their foreign ministers to the region to bolster their influence in the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday signed a bilateral agreement with Samoa to boost diplomatic ties during the third leg of an eight-country tour by the Chinese delegation, following initial visits to the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
The Samoan government said Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa met with Wang Yi and discussed “climate change, the pandemic and peace and security”.
Then they signed economic and technical cooperation agreements for “projects to be determined”, while China presented a transfer certificate for an arts and culture center, a Samoa-China friendship park, as well as documents relating to a fingerprint laboratory for the police to complete the construction of the Police Academy.
The government noted in its statement that the key to these relations was “adherence to the one-China policy”. The Solomons, Kiribati and Samoa now recognize Beijing instead of Taiwan.
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China wants to build on a security pact it recently signed with the Solomon Islands and is seeking a 10-nation security and trade agreement.
The China-Solomon security deal has alarmed the United States and its allies like Australia and New Zealand, which fear an increased military presence from Beijing.
At a press conference in Honiara after meeting his Solomon counterpart, Wang Yi said China had “no intention at all of establishing a military base”.
Meanwhile, Australia’s new centre-left government led by Anthony Albanese, which was sworn in on Monday, has made the Pacific islands an early diplomatic priority.
The new leader said he had a ‘comprehensive plan’ for the Pacific, which includes a defense training school, maritime security support, increased aid and a re-engagement of the region on change climatic.
“We will be proactive in the region, we want to engage,” Albanese told reporters.
Australians received a boost on Saturday when Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he had a “wonderful meeting” with Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who visited days after taking office to to show the new government’s attention to the Pacific Islands.
Fiji is no one’s backyard – we are part of a Pacific family. And our biggest concern isn’t geopolitics, it’s climate change.
In this spirit, I had a wonderful meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs @SenatorWong to strengthen our Vuvale partnership with Australia. pic.twitter.com/RH80dPnCAk
— Frank Bainimarama (@FijiPM) May 27, 2022
The Fijian prime minister appeared to take a veiled swipe at Scott Morrison, the Tory prime minister ousted in an election last weekend, who once called the Pacific Australia’s “backyard”.
Climate change, which Pacific island nations see as an existential threat, had been a key issue in the election.
Australian Wong said Canberra would be an unconditional partner, while China appears to be offering infrastructure projects.
Wang traveled to Fiji late Saturday, where he is expected to push for the regional deal at a meeting he will host on Monday.
• Jim Pollard with Reuters