WELLINGTON – China's foreign minister on Friday arrived on the remote Pacific nation of Kiribati, where the future of a vast fishing ground is at stake.
The planned four-hour visit by Wang Yi was his second stop on an eight-nation tour that comes amid growing concerns about Beijing’s military and financial ambitions in the South Pacific region.
Kiribati closed its borders this year as it tries to stamp out an outbreak of COVID-19. But its government made a rare exception to allow Wang and his 20-strong delegation into the country for face-to-face discussions.
At stake in Kiribati is the future of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a stretch of ocean the size of California that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In November, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau announced the government planned to end the commercial fishing ban that had been in place since 2015 and begin to sustainably fish the area.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at New Zealand's Massey University, said she expected there would be some fisheries agreements between China and Kiribati that would come from Wang's visit.
Powles said China, which already dominates fishing in the region, had offered to upgrade an airport runway and causeway in the Phoenix Islands.
“The worry is that this would essentially obliterate the fish stock,” she said. “That it would severely damage fish stocks that are already under pressure.”
She said there were also concerns that any kind of base for Chinese commercial fishing fleets in Kiribati could also be used as an additional hub for Beijing's surveillance activities.
Kiribati's president said Wang would visit his residence for bilateral discussions during the visit, and emphasized the health protocols that were in place.
Maamau said in a statement that the Chinese delegation would need to take PCR tests before arriving and stay in a travel bubble while there, and that everybody in Kiribati who came into contact with them would need to quarantine afterward for a week — presumably including himself.
“The high-level state visit is an important milestone for Kiribati-China relations, as it will strengthen and promote partnership and cooperation between our two countries after the resumption of diplomatic ties in 2019,” Maamau said.
China says Wang's trip to the region builds on a long history of friendly relations between Beijing and the island nations.
A draft document obtained by The Associated Press shows that Wang is hoping to strike a deal with 10 small Pacific nations during his visit. The sweeping agreement covers everything from security to fisheries and is seen by at least one Pacific leader as an attempt by Beijing to wrest control of the region.
Wang is hoping the countries will endorse the pre-written agreement as part of a joint communique after a May 30 meeting in Fiji with the other foreign ministers.
But Australia scrambled to counter the move Thursday by sending its own Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Fiji to shore up support in the Pacific.
In Fiji, Wong said it was up to each island nation to decide what partnerships they formed and what agreements they signed, but urged them to consider the benefits of sticking with Australia.
“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” Wong said. “We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions.”
On Friday, Wong met with Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last month in a move that sent shock waves around the world.
That pact has raised fears that China could send troops to the island nation or even establish a military base there, not far from Australia. The Solomon Islands and China say there are no plans for a base.
During his 10-day visit, Wang is also planning to make stops in Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Thursday he’d sent Wong to Fiji because Australia needed to “step up” its efforts in the Pacific.
“We need to respond to this because this is China seeking to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that in recent years, exchanges and cooperation between Beijing and the island nations had been expanding in a development that was welcomed by the Pacific countries.