WELLINGTON – The foreign ministers of Australia and China were both making their final stops Friday on what has become an island-hopping diplomatic duel in the South Pacific.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong arrived in Tonga where she met with Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku and other officials including King Tupou VI. Her visit came just three days after China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi held similar meetings in Tonga.
Wong and the officials talked about climate change and rebuilding efforts after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit in January. Also on the agenda was the contentious issue of regional security.
“We are not a government or a country that wants to come in and tell you what you should do,” Wong said at a news conference in the capital, Nuku'alofa.
She said Australia considered itself part of the Pacific family.
“We want regional security to be dealt with, to be the responsibility of the Pacific family,” Wong said. “And we will continue to engage with our friends, our partners in the region.”
Hu’akavameiliku said Tonga was honored that Wong had decided to visit just two weeks after taking office, following an election in Australia.
“This is a clear sign of the Australian government’s strong commitment to strengthening our bilateral relations and engagement with our region,” the prime minister said.
Meanwhile, Wang met in Papua New Guinea with Prime Minister James Marape and other officials before flying Friday afternoon to East Timor, the final stop on his eight-nation tour of the region and the first outside of the South Pacific. Wang is due to leave East Timor on Saturday.
Wang met his East Timorese counterpart Adaljiza Magno shortly after arriving in Dili, the capital.
“The two countries have enjoyed strong relations over the past 20 years,” Magno said, adding that her government was grateful for China's assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic and amid flooding last year that left dozens of people in Dili dead.
The two top diplomats signed agreements related to fisheries, water and sanitation. China also agreed to support the development of East Timor's healthcare system, including by building hospitals and sending medical teams there. And China pledged to help support East Timor's defense and education sectors.
During the visit, Wang held separate talks with East Timor’s Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, who is looking to increase infrastructure investment from Australia, Japan and China.
Most government offices in the capital, including the presidential palace and the foreign and defense ministries, as well as major shopping centers, were built with Chinese investment. A commercial port built by a Chinese state-owned company is set to open later this year.
Before returning to Beijing on Saturday, Wang is scheduled to meet with East Timor’s newly elected President Jose Ramos-Horta and leaders of the country’s two largest political parties.
East Timor, Asia’s youngest country, just celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. Its transition to a democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption as the country continues to struggle with the legacy of its bloody independence battle and bitter factional politics that have occasionally erupted into violence. Its economy is reliant on dwindling offshore oil revenues.
Wang had hoped to ink an ambitious multilateral deal with 10 South Pacific nations this week covering everything from security to fisheries. He couldn’t find consensus on that deal but has been notching up smaller wins by signing bilateral agreements with many of the countries he’s been visiting.
The diplomatic push by China, especially around Pacific security, has caused deep concern among some of the island nations as well as farther afield in Canberra and Washington. Since news of the proposed deal emerged, Wong has made two trips to the Pacific to shore up support for Australia.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.