By BEN PACKHAM in Nauru
China’s representative at the Pacific Island Forum in Nauru has stormed out of talks with forum nations after a dispute with host nation leader, President Baron Waqa.
The Chinese “dialogue partner” left the closed doors meeting after what was described as a “terse exchange of words” with Mr Waqa.
Nauru, which recognises Taiwan, had already angered the Chinese observer delegation by refusing to allow them into the country on official passports.
The diplomatic incident came as Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne urged China to heed the benchmarks set by Australia in the way in which it delivered aid to the Pacific.
Ms Payne said the regional Biketawa Plus security declaration to be signed at the forum was not aimed at any particular nation, despite concerns in Australia, the United States and New Zealand about growing Chinese influence in the region.
“China is Australia’s largest trading partner,” she said.
“There is no question of that. What I would say though, is that any nation who wants to make a contribution, who wants to support by provision of assistance or aid, into a region like the Pacific, should perhaps look at the benchmarks that we adopt; benchmarks around strengthening security, strengthening stability, and strengthening prosperity.
“And we look forward to working together with all of those who want to make a constructive contribution.”
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi had threatened to pull out of the meeting over Nauru’s refusal to allow Chinese delegates into Nauru on their diplomatic passports, while Fiji also piled the pressure on Nauru.
Samoa and Fiji are both are major recipients of Chinese aid and soft loans.
President Waqa tried to smooth over the dispute yesterday, saying there had been a “misunderstanding”.
“It so happens that Nauru has no diplomatic relation with China,” Mr Waqa said.
“We have a reciprocal arrangement which has been there for a long long time where … (Nauran) ministers attending multilateral meetings in China aren’t issued visas but are expected to travel on ordinary passports.
“Also the reciprocal arrangement is that they too, when they travel here, travel on ordinary passports. That’s quite normal. They too know that.”
He said the dispute had been resolved, although he refused to say whether Nauru had stood its ground and forced the Chinese delegates to travel on their personal passports.
“We have allowed them to come and we have just issued them a visa,” he said.
Nauru is one of the few nations in the Pacific to recognise Taiwan
Nauru is one of a number of smaller Pacific states which recognise Taiwan, while China maintains close diplomatic relations with the larger Pacific nations including Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.
China has provided Fiji with about US$360m in aid and loans over a decade, and Samoa about about US$230m.
The 2017 foreign affairs white paper committed Australia to “stepping up our engagement in the Pacific” amid concerns over China’s growing influence.
The white paper also commits Australia to “strongly support the Pacific Islands Forum, the pre-eminent regional organisation, through which leaders set regional priorities”.
However, Australia is already under pressure at the annual meeting of 18 Pacific nation’s over the Prime Minister’s decision not to attend, and the Morrison government’s recent shift on climate policy.