WELLINGTON, New Zealand — China’s foreign minister was due to visit the remote Pacific nation of Kiribati on Friday, where the future of a vast fishing zone hangs in the balance.
Wang Yi’s four-hour visit was his second leg of an eight-country tour that comes amid growing concerns over Beijing’s military and financial ambitions in the South Pacific region.
Kiribati has closed its borders this year as it tries to stamp out a COVID-19 outbreak. But his government made a rare exception to allow Wang and his 20-person delegation into the country for face-to-face talks.
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 that the government planned to end the ban on commercial fishing in place since 2015 and start fishing sustainably in the region.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said she expected there would be fishing deals between China and Kiribati that would come out of the visit. Wang.
Powles said China, which already dominates fishing in the region, had offered to upgrade an airport runway and causeway in the Phoenix group of islands.
“The concern is that it would essentially wipe out the fish stock,” she said. “That it would seriously damage fish stocks that are already under pressure.”
She said there were also concerns that any type 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 come to his residence for bilateral talks during the visit, and highlighted the health protocols that were in place.
Maamau said in a statement that the Chinese delegation should take PCR tests before arriving and remain in a travel bubble during their stay, and that anyone in Kiribati who came into contact with them should then be quarantined for a period of time. a week – presumably including himself.
“The high-level state visit is an important milestone for Kiribati-China relations, as it will strengthen and promote the partnership and cooperation between our two countries after the resumption of diplomatic relations 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 hopes to strike a deal with 10 smaller Pacific nations during his visit. The comprehensive deal covers everything from security to fisheries, and is seen by at least one Pacific leader as an attempt by Beijing to take control of the region.
Wang hopes the countries will endorse the pre-written deal in a joint statement after a May 30 meeting in Fiji with the other foreign ministers.
But Australia moved quickly to counter that decision on Thursday by sending its own foreign minister Penny Wong to Fiji to bolster its 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 staying with Australia.
“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t attach strings attached or impose unsustainable financial burdens,” Wong said. “We are a partner that will not erode Pacific priorities or institutions.”
China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last month in a move that sent shockwaves around the world.
The 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 also plans to stop in Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Thursday he had sent Wong to Fiji because Australia needed to “step up” its efforts in the Pacific.
“We have to respond to this because it is China that is looking to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since World War II,” he told Reuters. Australian Broadcasting Corp.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that in recent years, exchanges and cooperation between Beijing and island nations have grown in a development that has been welcomed by Pacific countries.