Beijing puts more Pacific countries offside as Penny Wong tours region

Singapore: Beijing has put one of its key Pacific partners offside by attempting to push through a security deal and threatened New Zealand for supporting opposition to the regional agreement.

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi enters the final stages of his 10-day Pacific tour, Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Mataʻafa accused China of attempting to ram through a Pacific-wide trade, policing and security deal without enough time for consultation.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, right, holds a joint press conference with Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa in Apia, Samoa.

“Our position was you cannot have regional agreements if the region has not met to discuss it,” Mataʻafa said. “To be called into discussion and have an expectation that there will be an outcome was something we could not agree to.”

Mataʻafa, who became prime minister in May, also revealed that many of the deals signed by her and Wang on Saturday which spanned climate change, economic recovery and police fingerprinting were already in place. “Most of them have started a number of years ago, and it was the formalising process which is a normal process,” she said. “It just seemed a bit abnormal because the [Chinese] Minister of Foreign Affairs is here.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who visited Apia to meet with Mataʻafa on Thursday praised the Samoan leader for her leadership in the regional forum and respect for its processes to “deal with some of the external circumstances we all find ourselves in”.

“I think it was a very wise intervention,” she said.

US President Joe Biden meets with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the Oval Office.Credit:AP

The Chinese trade and security proposal failed to get consensus from Pacific Island leaders when it was raised in Fiji on Monday, forcing Beijing to issue a watered-down position paper on the region with no security guarantees. The lobbying against the deal by Australia, the United States and New Zealand was met with backlash in Beijing after US President Joe Biden and NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a joint statement opposing China’s military intentions in the region.

“The hype-up of relevant issues in the joint statement by the US and New Zealand is out of ulterior motives to create disinformation and attack and discredit China,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. “The US has military bases all over the world, yet it expresses concerns about normal security cooperation with other countries.”

NZ Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said it was “important for the Pacific to lead the priorities and the solutions that will determine their long-term resilience.”

The comments followed a veiled warning to the NZ business community by China’s ambassador in Wellington, Wang Xiaolong, on Tuesday night.

Describing New Zealand’s branding as a “green, clean, open and friendly country” as its greatest asset, Wang said China’s public perceptions could not be taken for granted.

“It is thus incumbent upon us, as stakeholders in, and custodians of, the relationship, to protect it carefully, use it wisely, and make sure it will not be squandered,” he said.

China’s former ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye made more direct but similar comments about Chinese students and consumers in April 2020 before China launched $20 billion worth of trade strikes against Australia over human rights, coronavirus and national security disputes.

New Zealand has maintained a close relationship with Beijing throughout the growing geopolitical tensions that have surrounded the top trading partners of both countries. Kiwi exports to China have surged by 210 per cent over the past decade, while Wellington has been reluctant to directly criticise China’s record in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and its trade sanctions on Australia.

Wang said the rapidly evolving international environment could make the relationship between New Zealand and China more volatile.

“We must not lose sight of the fundamental challenges we face, and need to reflect on some of the larger lessons we might draw from what has transpired, to avoid knee-jerk reactions and sleep-walking out of control before it is too late,” he said.

The Chinese foreign minister arrived in Papua New Guinea on Thursday afternoon where he is expected to announce plans to supply 2000 body armour sets and helmets for PNG’s security forces. He will then travel to East Timor on Friday – the last stop on his tour of the region.

Australia has been attempting to match China’s increased funding for the region. More than 100 Australian Defence Force personnel will be sent to PNG to help the country conduct its national election. In Samoa on Thursday, Wong announced an eight-year human development partnership between the two countries. She also confirmed Australia would supply Samoa with a new Guardian patrol boat after its last one was written off when it ran aground last year.

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