Australia’s foreign affairs minister has used a visit to Fiji to urge Pacific countries to weigh up the “consequences” of accepting security offers from Beijing, saying the region should determine its own security.
Speaking on the second day of her trip, Penny Wong said Australia wanted to show it was a reliable and trustworthy partner, and was also “determined to make up for” what she described as “a lost decade on climate action”.
Wong’s visit coincides with a marathon eight-country visit by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in a sign of the growing competition for influence in the region.
But the Chinese embassy in Canberra said on Friday that China had not sought a “sphere of influence” and it believed the South Pacific “should not be the battlefield for geopolitical manoeuvring”.
In a boost for the US, Fiji has become the first Pacific island country to join Joe Biden’s newly launched Indo-Pacific economic framework. The White House praised the decision, saying Fiji was a regional leader and would provide “vital value and perspective” on tackling the climate crisis.
Fiji’s prime minister and foreign minister, Frank Bainimarama, met with the Australian foreign affairs minister on Friday afternoon and “extended his sincere appreciation to Minister Wong for her commitment to the Pacific family”.
Bainimarama told her that he was optimistic Fiji and Australia would “continue to work closely to overcome common challenges, achieve shared aspirations, and build a unified and stronger Pacific family”, according to a statement issued by Fiji’s government.
He commended the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, “for his strong mandate on climate change” and said the new leader would be invited to attend the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in Fiji in July.
The statement added: “He said the bilateral relations between the two nations has strengthened through the Vuvale [Family] Partnership, and that our solidarity is important now more than ever to overcome the unprecedented challenges we face and to build a resilient and sustainable Pacific.”
During an earlier press conference, Wong was asked directly whether the Australian government was concerned about China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
Wong said Australia respected that it was up to Pacific nations to make their own decisions about who they wished to partner with and in which areas but said Australia wanted to be the “partner of choice”. Australia also wanted to demonstrate “that we are a partner who can be trusted”.
“Obviously we have expressed our concerns publicly about the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China,” Wong said.
“The reason we have [expressed those concerns] is we think there are, as do other Pacific nations, we think there are consequences.
“We think that it’s important that the security of the region be determined by the region and historically that has been the case and we think that’s a good thing.”
Wong said the new Australian government had outlined a suite of policies, including stronger climate action and improved labour schemes, which signalled “a strong desire to play our part in the Pacific family and build stronger relationships”.
She played down the fact she was in the region at the same time as her Chinese counterpart. The former climate change minister said she had been “very keen” to come to the Pacific as soon as she became foreign affairs minister.
“This is my first bilateral visit – I was a few days late because I had to go to Tokyo [for the Quad meeting] but you will forgive that, I’m sure,” Wong said.
In a speech at the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat in Suva on Thursday evening, Wong promised to treat Pacific countries with respect, saying Australia is “a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached” and won’t impose “unsustainable financial burdens”.
That appeared to be part of an effort to set out an implicit contrast with China, which is pursuing a sweeping regional economic and security deal with Pacific nations that would dramatically expand Beijing’s influence and reach into those countries.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra pushed back at criticism from the Australian government, as it insisted cooperation between China and Pacific island countries had “brought a real sense of achievement and happiness to the people”.
“China has never interfered in the internal affairs of island countries, nor sought so-called ‘sphere of influence’ in the region,” a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said on Friday.
“The aid and assistance from China have never left any island country mired in debt or security threat.”
The embassy spokesperson added that China respected “the historical and traditional ties between Australia and the Pacific island countries”.
The spokesperson said China and Australia had “their own unique strengths and advantages” which should be seen as “complementary forces to help the South Pacific island countries achieve faster and better development”.
China’s state councillor and foreign minister, Wang Yi, arrived in Solomon Islands on Thursday on the first leg of an eight-country, 10-day visit to the region.
China’s proposed new regional deal with 10 Pacific island nations will be discussed in Fiji next week when Wang hosts the second China-Pacific foreign ministers meeting.
A draft of the deal, written in a similar style to the controversial bilateral security deal signed by Solomon Islands and China last month, and a five-year action plan, both of which have been seen by the Guardian, cover a huge range of issues, including trade, financing and investment, tourism and public health.
The arrangement would see a dramatic expansion of China’s engagement with policing in the region, with the draft deal proposing to “expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly combat transnational crime and establish a dialogue mechanism on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation”.
Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said the proposal would “send a shudder down spines in Canberra and harden the belief that Beijing’s longer-term agenda is even more ambitious”.