Samoa’s prime minister has suggested it was unreasonable for China to expect a Pacific trade and security deal to be rushed through this week, as she warmly welcomed the new Australian government’s climate policy. During a joint press conference in Samoa on Thursday, the Australian minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, announced that Australia would provide it with a new Guardian-class patrol vessel to replace the one that was grounded last year.
Since being sworn in last week, Wong’s second visit to the region signals the intensifying competition with China for influence. However, the former climate minister has emphasized that she wants to listen to and respect Pacific priorities. The prime minister of Samoa, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, played down the bilateral cooperation agreements her country signed when China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited the country. Fiame said the signing ceremony was for bilateral programs and projects, most of which “had started several years ago, and it was a formalizing process”.
“It just seemed a bit abnormal because the minister of foreign affairs was here, and there was this particular proposal from the Chinese they were seeking regional agreement on,” Fiame told reporters on Thursday. “Our position was that you cannot have a regional agreement when the region hasn’t met to discuss it, and to be called in to have that discussion and to have an expectation that there would be a comprehensive decision or outcome was something that we could not agree to.” In a setback for China, Pacific countries declined to sign up to a sweeping regional economic and security deal proposed by Beijing after a crucial meeting of Pacific foreign ministers and their Chinese counterparts on Monday. Ten Pacific countries were to be part of the deal.
Said she believed Pacific countries had concluded that “we need to meet as a region to consider any proposal put to us by our development partners that requires a regional agreement”. Wong, Samoa’s position was that region-wide agreements must first be taken to the Pacific Islands Forum. Who joinWhoFiame for a media conference after talks in Apia on Thursday praised Samoa’s leader for her “wise intervention” on the issue. “Your prime minister has shown a lot of leadership and wisdom, not only now, but I think in many of her statements about the importance of robust regional architecture and respectful regional processes to deal with some external circumstances all find ourselves in,” she said.
Wong said Australia believed regional security was “an issue for the Pacific family”. She said while each nation was sovereign, it was important to have “collective consideration” of decisions that could “ultimately have the potential to affect the nature of the security arrangements of the region”. China’s proposed deal, leaked last week, covered everything from a free trade area with the region to providing humanitarian and Covid relief. It also laid out China’s vision for a much closer relationship with the Pacific, especially on security matters, with China proposing to be involved in training police, cybersecurity, sensitive marine mapping, and gaining greater access to natural resources.
After consideration of the deal was deferred on Monday, China released a “position paper on mutual respect and common development with Pacific island countries”. The 15 points included offering to combat transnational crime while appreciating “that Pacific Island Countries firmly abide by the one-China principle, and understand and support China’s core interests and major concerns”. Police training was not mentioned. The new Australian government wants to persuade countries in the region to view Beijing’s offers of security assistance with skepticism – and consider consequences for their sovereignty ten years down the track.
Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning. But China’s embassy in Canberra said on Wednesday that Beijing “never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries” and respected Australia’s “historical and traditional ties in the region”. China’s foreign minister was due to arrive in Papua New Guinea on Thursday amid tensions leading up to an election. The former PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill warned that no agreements or security equipment should be accepted before the election. The ABC has reported Beijing would offer 2,000 body armor kits to PNG police.
On a two-day visit to Fiji last week, Wong said Australia wanted to show it was a reliable and trustworthy partner to Pacific countries and was “determined to make up for” what she described as “a lost decade on climate action”. Pacific leaders have repeatedly said action on the climate crisis is a bigger priority for them than geopolitical rivalries. At the joint press conference on Thursday, Fiame said Samoa was “greatly encouraged” that the new Australian government’s climate policy “brings them closer to alignment” with advocacy by Pacific countries. Wong said Australia was committed to a 43% cut in emissions by 2030 and the policy mechanisms to achieve it and would legislate the net zero by 2050 target. Wong recalled that she had “spent a lot of time trying to change our country’s position on climate”. Wong is due to travel to Tonga for more meetings before returning to Australia on Friday.