China has dumped an ambitious plan to sign a wide-ranging agreement with Pacific Island nations.
The bombshell announcement came from China’s ambassador to Fiji, Zhang Ping, on Monday afternoon.
Mr Zhang said the agreement – under which China was proposing to cement ties with Pacific Island nations across areas such as cyber security, police cooperation, fisheries management and pandemic control – had been dropped.
It came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his counterparts from 10 Pacific island nations in Fiji, midway through a diplomatic tour of the region where China’s ambitions for wider security ties has caused concern among US allies.
Pacific Island nations with diplomatic ties with China are attending the meeting on Monday, hosted by Mr Wang. Earlier, he met Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat secretary-general Henry Puna.
The draft communique and five-year action plan sent by China to the invited nations, which include Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Niue and Vanuatu before the meeting, showed China was seeking a sweeping regional trade and security agreement.
But the draft communique prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, Federated States of Micronesia, according to a letter leaked last week.
With borders closed across the region because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most foreign ministers were attending the Fiji meeting by video link. In several Pacific countries, the foreign minister is also prime minister.
Several invited nations want to defer action on the communique or have it amended, an official from one Pacific country told Reuters.
Some Pacific islands have in recent days signed on to some of the individual security components that China is seeking in the regional agreement, statements released by the governments and China show.
In Samoa, an agreement was struck for a police fingerprint laboratory to complement a China-funded police training academy, Samoa said in a statement.
The US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand have expressed concern at a security pact signed by Solomon Islands with China last month, saying it had regional consequences and could lead to a Chinese military presence close to Australia.
The new Australian government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made the Pacific islands an early foreign policy priority to counter Beijing’s push, announcing a defence training school, support for maritime security, a boost in aid and re-engaging the region on climate change.
Last week, new Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited Fiji on a whirlwind trip designed to ease strained relations.
In Honiara last week, Mr Wang condemned interference in the deal and said the Solomon Islands’ relationship with China was a model for other Pacific island nations.