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China fails in bid for Pacific nations deal

by The Associated Press | May 31, 2022 at 4:41 a.m.
In this photo supplied by the Fiji government, the President of Fiji, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere, left, watches as the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signs the visitors book at the State House in Suva, Fiji, Monday, May 30, 2022. Wang and a 20-strong delegation are in Fiji as part of an eight-nation Pacific Islands tour that comes amid growing concerns about Beijing's military and financial ambitions in the South Pacific region. (Fiji Government via AP)

SUVA, Fiji -- China fell short Monday on a bold plan to have 10 Pacific nations endorse a sweeping new agreement covering everything from security to fisheries as some in the region expressed deep concerns.

But there have been plenty of smaller wins for China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi as he continues an island-hopping tour of the region.

Wang was in Fiji to co-host a key meeting with the foreign ministers from the 10 island nations.

At an unusual news conference afterward, Wang and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama spoke for about 30 minutes and then abruptly left the stage as reporters tried to shout out questions. That left many details of what transpired at the meeting undisclosed.

But it was clear the nations hadn't endorsed China's plan.

"As always, we put consensus first among our countries throughout any discussion on new regional agreements," Bainimarama said.

While there have been growing international concerns about Beijing's military and financial ambitions in the region, many Fijians see a benefit in foreign investment wherever it comes from, so long as it uplifts the people.

Georgina Matilda said that working for Chinese infrastructure company China Railway meant she could put food on the table for her children.

Another Fijian, Miliane Rokolita, said China's increased presence had benefited people.

"They bring us bigger houses. They bring money in Fiji. They're good people," Rokolita said.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press indicate Wang had hoped to get the 10 nations to endorse a pre-written agreement as part of a joint communique after the meeting.

But Wang was unable to get the consensus he'd sought.

David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, told other Pacific leaders he wouldn't endorse the plan, warning them in a letter that it would needlessly heighten geopolitical tensions and threaten regional stability.

Panuelo called it "the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes" and said it "threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a world war at worst."

During the news conference Monday, Wang listed some areas where the countries had been able to find agreement and said he'd keep working on others.

"After the meeting, China will release its own position paper on our own positions, propositions and cooperation proposals with Pacific Island countries," Wang said through an interpreter. "And going forward, we will continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus."

While China may have fallen short on its plans for a grand multilateral agreement, it has been signing smaller bilateral agreements with the Pacific nations every day during Wang's tour.

For instance, on Friday, Wang visited Kiribati, where a key fishing ground the size of California is at stake. Kiribati's government said afterward that the two nations had signed 10 agreements ranging from cooperating on economic goals to building a specific bridge.

Kiribati's government did not immediately respond to a request by the AP to provide details of the agreements.

In his news conference, Wang said "some have been questioning why China has been so active in supporting Pacific Island countries."

He said China had long championed other developing nations in the Pacific and around the world, something it had started doing in the 1960s when it helped African nations build railways.

"My advice for those people is: Don't be too anxious and don't be too nervous," Wang said.

After the news conference, China's ambassador to Fiji, Qian Bo, took a few questions from reporters, saying there had been "some concerns on specific issues" from some of the 10 nations about the proposed agreement.

"We never impose anything on other countries, let alone to our developing friends and small island countries," Qian said.

He said China would try to release the position paper mentioned by Wang within about a week. He said parts of the agreement were simply an offer from China to provide assistance to the nations.

Print Headline: China fails in bid for Pacific nations deal

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