China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has arrived in Solomon Islands, the first stop of an eight-nation Pacific tour, where he is seeking a sweeping regional deal on security and trade.
- Foreign Minister Penny Wong says Australia will listen to the Pacific on climate
- China will seek an agreement with 10 Pacific Island countries, according to a draft communique
- Local media in Honiara plan to boycott Mr Wang’s press conference due to restrictions
His visit coincides with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong arriving in Fiji on Thursday to meet with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tomorrow, her first Pacific visit since being sworn in on Monday.
In a keynote address, Senator Wong said previous Australian governments had let down the Pacific family on climate change.
“I understand that climate change isn’t an abstract threat, it’s a present and existential one.”
She praised Pacific leaders for their leadership on climate action, vowed Australia would listen to them, and acknowledged they had been “ignored” and “disrespected” in the past.
“We will end the climate wars in our country,” she said.
“This is a different Australian government and a different Australia.
She added that Australia “will remain a critical development partner for the Pacific family in the years ahead” in dealing with the triple challenge of climate, COVID-19 and “strategic contest”.
“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” she said.
“We understand that the security of any one Pacific family member rests on the security of all.”
When asked about China’s growing influence in the region, she said she did not approach discussion about China’s activities in the Pacific as abstract from Australia.
“I look at this and think, ‘What is it we need to do to work together to ensure that regional security is fostered and supported?'” she said.
“I respect the sovereign right of every nation to make its own decisions … these aren’t decisions in the abstract. These are decisions which affect other nations and the region as a whole.”
Wong receives warm welcome from Pacific Islands Forum
Ahead of the speech, Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Henry Puna said on Twitter it “speaks volumes that her first bilateral visit as Foreign Minister is to our Blue Pacific region”.
“This is an issue so critical for our survival, and we cannot settle for anything less than urgent climate action now,” he said in remarks before Senator Wong’s speech.
Senator Wong has wasted no time in signalling Labor’s intention to work more closely with Pacific islands nations, sharing an address to Pacific leaders on Twitter soon after she was sworn in and travelling to Fiji barely 24 hours after returning from a Quad meeting in Tokyo.
Australia to increase aid to Pacific, introduce new visa pathways
In her speech, Senator Wong pointed to a promised increase in Australia’s overseas development assistance to the Pacific by $525 million over the next four years.
She said the government would ensure Pacific Islanders who came to Australia to work were treated fairly, with better conditions, and said workers would be allowed to bring their families here.
The new government will also create a Pacific engagement visa to provide a pathway to permanency for 3,000 people per year.
Senator Wong said an Australia-Pacific Climate Infrastructure Partnership would support climate-related infrastructure and energy projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste.
She added the new government would reinstate the role of Australia’s ambassador for climate change, and would appoint Australia’s inaugural First Nations ambassador, who would lead a new office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Draft communique shows China seeks deals with 10 Pacific countries
Solomon Islands has rolled out the red carpet for Mr Wang, who was greeted by Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele when he landed in Honiara in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Mr Wang met Mr Manele and Solomon Islands Governor General Sir David Vunagi. He was also expected to meet with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare a month after it was revealed the two countries signed a security pact.
Australia, the United States, Japan and New Zealand have raised concerns about the deal, which they say could give China a military foothold in the Pacific.
A leaked draft communique shows that China will seek an agreement with 10 Pacific Island countries covering policing, security, trade, marine and data communication.
In Honiara, Mr Wang said China hoped relations with the Solomon Islands could be a model for other Pacific Island countries.
Mr Wang said Solomon Islands gained a “sincere and reliable partner” when it established diplomatic relations with China, according to a statement on the foreign ministry website. Solomon Islands switched ties from Taiwan to China in 2019.
China hopes relations with Solomons could be model for others
“Wang Yi said that China will, as always, firmly support Solomon Islands to maintain national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, safeguard domestic unity and accelerate the country’s development and revitalisation, and will continue to provide all the assistance it can,” the statement said.
The two sides agreed to “work on landmark projects that belong to the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ together … and help [Solomon Islands] fully tap its resource advantages and development potential.”
The Solomon Islands government said in a statement Mr Wang would sign a number of cooperation agreements between the two countries in a two-day visit. The Chinese delegation of 44 includes vice ministers in foreign affairs, commerce, environment, and information officials.
Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation reported that Mr Sogavare welcomed the high level visit from China, one of the Pacific nation’s key development partners.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference in Washington DC the Pacific is New Zealand’s home and any security challenges should be addressed by Pacific nations.
“I see [the communique] as China’s trying to increase its engagement with sovereign nations, but expanding into a space that — actually the need around security arrangements — we are able to meet within our region,” she said.
Dame Meg Taylor, former secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, was asked about the prospect of naval bases built on Manus Island in her home country of Papua New Guinea.
“For me, it’s very, very important that part Papua New Guinea as a sovereign state is the one that calls the shots and not anybody else,” she told RN Drive.
Honiara press to boycott press conference
Few details are known about the details of Mr Wang’s trip and that could be compounded by a planned media boycott of a press conference to be held by the Chinese official and his Solomon Islands counterpart, Jeremiah Manele, after media learned of restrictions.
“According to the program, the press will be given the opportunity to ask only two questions,” Media Association of Solomon Islands (MASI) President Georgina Kekea said in a statement.
“How ridiculous is that?”
She said journalists should be able to ask questions on behalf of the people.
She said the boycott was not intended to disrespect the government but to showcase the media’s disagreement with the restrictions.
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