China’s top diplomat has begun his visit to Papua New Guinea in the midst of the island’s national election as Beijing races to salvage a controversial deal in a battle of influence with Australia and other western powers.
The visit of Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, came a few days after a proposed economic and security deal collapsed on Monday. But his visit has also been criticised by the former Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill, who is campaigning to take back the top job, in a series of media interviews, during which he said no agreements should be signed with China before the national election.
O’Neill told local press on Thursday that tensions between China and western powers had driven foreign leaders to “give a high amount of attention to the Pacific”, but it would be “improper” for China to donate security equipment or offer security support for the upcoming election. Earlier, the Australian broadcaster ABC reported Beijing would offer 2,000 body armour kits to police during Wang’s visit.
Resource-rich Papua New Guinea has defence ties with its close neighbour Australia, which has agreed to upgrade a naval base there. But in recent years, Port Moresby has been seeking increased sales to China from its liquid natural gas project.
Wang is on a tour of eight Pacific island nations with which he has signed a series of bilateral agreements on trade, fisheries, infrastructure and the supply of police equipment.
Controversies surrounding China’s influence have erupted in the region since Beijing signed a security agreement with Solomon Islands in March. Critics fear China would take advantage of the region to ultimately expand its military prowess.
Several Pacific nations said they opposed the proposed joint regional deal or needed more time to consider its regional implications. “There has been resentment over Pacific agreement on security matters,” Papua New Guinea’s foreign affairs secretary, Elias Wohengu, was quoted as saying by the Post Courier.
He indicated that Papua New Guinea was unlikely to sign a security deal. “On the security status of PNG, we will deal with it ourselves.”
Since the proposed deal collapsed earlier this week, Chinese media and Beijing’s diplomatic services have highlighted a series of documents, articles and social media posts, reiterating its intentions in the region, sending a message that China’s increased presence is mutually beneficial in nature.
On Monday, Beijing released a position paper on its relations with Pacific island countries. The document – “China’s position paper on mutual respect and common development with Pacific Island countries” – did not mention security or policing cooperation.
“China has dispatched medical teams to eight Pacific Island countries having diplomatic ties with China, benefiting several hundred thousand local residents,” it said, adding: “China is committed to deepen its comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development with Pacific Island countries.”
The document contrasted with an earlier leaked version of the controversial deal, which covered topics ranging from a free trade area to security matters. The leak pointed to China’s intention to be involved in cybersecurity, training of the police force and greater access to natural resources – all of them raising eyebrowsamong western allies.
In the last few days, state-owned Chinese media have also been highlighting the diplomatic achievements between the two sides, with outlets such as Xinhua publishing a photo gallery, showing a successful and booming relationship – and in particular showcasing how China had helped the island nations when they need it most.
Overseas embassies, in places such as London, also posted a list of talking points from China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reiterating how China pledges to strengthen cooperation with the countries in the region.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, on Thursday arrived in Samoa, and will also visit Tonga on Friday, days after Wang visited them both.
While China’s charm offensive aims to highlight its positive contributions to one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable regions, Beijing also directly criticised New Zealand and its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, for expressing Wellington’s “shared concern” over China’s influence in the region with the US.
“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,” the foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said on Wednesday.
The state-owned tabloid the Global Times on Wednesday directly pointed at Ardern, quoting a Chinese expert as saying she “can’t resist the growing pressure from the US and Australia as the US has been anxiously drawing its allies to its side to maintain hegemony”. The expert also said the prime minister “has to politically take the side and trade for goods”.
Beijing believes the recent collapse of the proposed deal has to do with the persuasion by the US and Australia in the region. “Since 2006, China and Pacific Island nations have intensified relations,” said Prof Zhao Shaofeng of the Pacific Islands Research Centre at Liaocheng University in China’s Shandong province. “The situation we are seeing today has the support of the US, which operated from behind the scenes.”
One of the concerns of many western allies is that if China were to succeed in expanding its influence in the region, Beijing would sooner or later increase its military presence. But Zhao said that from China’s perspective, Beijing “doesn’t need to build military bases there, because they’ll disrupt regional order”, adding: “And I have not heard Beijing has any plans to build these bases in the region.”
Reuters contributed to this report