By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Papua New Guinea’s prime minister has warned the opposition not to “play politics” with the visit of China’s foreign minister amid an election campaign, noting China is a major trade partner and the biggest buyer of the Pacific nation’s gas exports.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Prime Minister James Marape on Friday after signing agreements with his counterpart, in the final days of an eight-nation tour that has raised concern over Beijing’s ambitions in the region.
China was unable to gain consensus from 10 Pacific island nations for a sweeping regional pact on security and trade at a meeting on Monday. Several nations said it was too rushed and they wanted to consult the broader region, where some countries have diplomatic ties with Taiwan and not Beijing.
Nonetheless, Wang struck a series of bilateral deals on infrastructure, fisheries, trade and police equipment on his tour, and officials say discussions over a regional pact will continue.
At a press conference in Port Moresby on Friday, Wang denied that China had wanted a security pact at all and called media reports about such an agreement “disinformation”.
“China has come to the South Pacific region to build roads and bridges and improve the people’s lives, not to station troops or build military bases,” a Chinese foreign ministry statement cited him as saying.
“China stands ready to work with Pacific island countries to expand consensus on regional cooperation, not to sign any regional security agreement.”
GRAPHIC: China’s outreach in the South Pacific https://graphics.reuters.com/PACIFIC-SECURITY/CHINA/movanzonepa/graphic.jpg
Chinese state media outlet Xinhua this week reported Beijing wanted developing countries to join its new “Global Security Initiative”, although details have been scant.
The United States, Australia and New Zealand have expressed concern over Beijing’s offers for a greater security and policing presence in the Pacific, after it struck a security pact with Solomon Islands.
In a letter to other Pacific leaders last month, the Federated States of Micronesia warned a multilateral pact with China could bring a “Cold War” to the region.
In a virtual meeting with his Federated States of Micronesia counterpart on Thursday, Wang said China wasn’t expanding its military into the Pacific but focusing on economic development.
“The facts over nearly half a century have proved that the exchanges between China and (Pacific island countries) did not and will not affect regional security and stability,” he said, according to a foreign ministry statement on Friday.
Wang travelled to East Timor later on Friday, where he is to sign bilateral agreements on health, agriculture, media and economic cooperation, according to East Timor’s foreign ministry.
‘FRIENDS TO ALL’
Administered by Australia until 1975 and its nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea is strategically positioned and rich in resources but largely undeveloped.
Papua New Guinea had a foreign policy of “friends to all and enemies to none”, Prime Minister Marape said in a statement.
“China is the major buyer of our produce, and we will engage with them more in commerce and trade, as well as other aspects of our bilateral relationship going into the future,” he said.
China buys over 50% of all the gas produced in Papua New Guinea and has given an undertaking to buy more, he said.
Marape hit back at former prime minister Peter O’Neill, who is running for the top job and who criticised the timing of Wang’s visit as being inappropriate and warned no deals should be signed.
“The former prime minister knows very well not to play politics with the visit of an international leader to our country,” Marape said.
TONGA SHARES ‘RESPECT FOR DEMOCRACY’
Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong arrived in Tonga on Friday to highlight the new Australian government’s commitments on climate change, in her second trip to the region since being sworn in last week.
“We are not a government or country that wants to come in and tell you what to do,” said Wong, who visited Samoa on Thursday and pledged a new coastguard patrol vessel.
Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, who signed six agreements with China on Tuesday, told a joint media conference Tonga and Australia shared “respect for democracy and rule of law and the rights and freedoms of others”.
Australian aid has been crucial in Tonga’s history, and will continue in the priority areas of education, health, defence, trade, policing and democratic governance, he said.
Tonga has external debt of $195 million or 35.9 percent of its GDP, of which two-thirds is owed to China’s Export-Import Bank, its budget shows.
Sovaleni told reporters on Wednesday the debt had been discussed during the Chinese foreign minister’s visit, and Tonga will continue to make repayments.
Australia has offered to increase work opportunities for Tongans in Australia, and export opportunities, he added.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Additional reporting by Kate Lamb and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Kim Coghill and Raju Gopalakrishnan)