Australia, New Zealand say Pacific must discuss China

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia and New Zealand’s prime ministers agreed Friday that the security implications of China’s burgeoning influence must be discussed at a meeting of western Pacific leaders next week.

The neighboring countries are the wealthiest in the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum whose leaders will meet July 11-14 in the Fijian capital Suva.

Australia and New Zealand fear the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands struck this year could lead to a Chinese naval base being established in the south Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern agreed at a joint press conference in Sydney that the security implications of China’s encroachment in the region needed to be on the agenda.

“There’s no doubt that security and security agreements will be a topic at the PIF. It’s one of the reasons why I’m determined to attend,” Albanese said. “It’s in Australia’s national interest for me to do so.”

Albanese said Australia wanted to remain the “security partner of choice” for its Pacific island neighbors.

“Australia’s position is that we will continue to engage and we want to cooperate with China where we can, but we will stand up for Australian values when we must,” he said.

Ardern said while the agenda was controlled by Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the meeting chair, the forum’s rules allowed for security agreements that effect the region to be discussed.

She said the island countries where not expected to choose between security partners.

“It should be the Pacific priorities first and foremost. They should be free of coercion. There should be high quality investment in infrastructure because that is what our region deserves,” Ardern said.

“New Zealand is very clearly opposed to the militarization of our region,” she added.

Due to the pandemic, the Suva summit will be Pacific leaders’ first opportunity for face-to-face meetings since 2019 when the forum met in Tuvalu.

In May, China fell short on a bold plan to have 10 Pacific nations endorse a sweeping new agreement covering everything from security to fisheries as some in the region expressed deep concerns.

But there were plenty of smaller wins for China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his island-hopping tour of the region.

Wang was in Fiji on May 30 to co-host a key meeting with the foreign ministers from the 10 island nations. At an unusual news conference afterward, Wang and Bainimarama spoke for about 30 minutes and then abruptly left the stage as reporters tried to shout out questions. That left many details of what transpired at the meeting unanswered.

It was clear the nations hadn’t endorsed China’s plan. But Wang managed to sign smaller bilateral agreements with the Pacific nations during his tour.

Albanese expects the forum will be more receptive to his government, which was elected in May, because it has promised more action on climate change and an additional 525 million Australian dollars ($358 million) spent on regional aid. Climate change is the forum’s greatest security concern.

China has eased a diplomatic deep freeze it imposed on the previous Australian government for more than two years, during which Beijing refused to return Australian government ministers’ phone calls. But Defense Minister Richard Marles met his Chinese counterpart Gen. Wei Fenghe in Singapore last month.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong is scheduled to meet Wang on Friday as the foreign ministers from the Group of 20 richest and largest developing nations gather in Bali, Indonesia.