China's foreign minister starts Pacific tour in the Solomons

Pacific Islands China

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and a 20-strong delegation arrived in the Solomon Islands Thursday at the start of an eight-nation tour that comes amid growing concerns about Beijing’s military and financial ambitions in the South Pacific region.

China says the trip builds on a long history of friendly relations between Beijing and the island nations.

But Australia scrambled to counter the move by sending its own Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Fiji to shore up support in the Pacific. Wong had been on the job just five days following an Australian election and had just arrived back Wednesday night from a meeting in Tokyo.

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.”

Meanwhile, the Media Association of Solomon Islands called on its members to boycott a news conference in the capital, Honiara, held by Wang and his counterpart from the Solomon Islands, Jeremiah Manele, following a meeting between the pair.

That's because only selected media were invited to the event, and the schedule allowed for just a single question to be asked of Wang by China's state-owned broadcaster CCTV.

“Its a tough call to make regarding the media boycott for the press event on Thursday,” wrote association president Georgina Kekea on Twitter. “Our protest is for our govt to see our disappointment. They have failed us & they failed to protect #democracy.”

According to an official Chinese summary of the meeting, Wang told his counterpart that China would firmly support the Solomon Islands in its efforts to maintain national security and territorial integrity, while Manele described the visit as historic and a “milestone in the relations” between the two countries.

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.

In another move by China, 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.

During his 10-day visit, Wang is also planning to make stops in Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

Earlier, Australia's new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said 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.