WHEN Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, during a visit to Fiji on Monday, mentioned China’s plan for a summit of Pacific island leaders later this year, it no doubt never entered his mind that it could spark such a fire storm in Australia and New Zealand.
In an address to Fiji’s parliament, O’Neill said President Xi Jinping wishes to hold a meeting in Papua New Guinea ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum to be held in Port Moresby in November. This caused consternation in Australia and New Zealand, with New Zealand’s Acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters, warning of rising geopolitical tensions as a result of Beijing’s attempt to fill what he said was a “vacuum” in the region. But Australia and New Zealand should not over-interpret China’s plan for a summit with leaders from Pacific island countries which have diplomatic ties with China.
Papua New Guinea, as host to this year’s AsiaPacific Economic Co-operation Economic Leaders’ Meeting, will naturally be a venue for multilateral diplomacy for participating countries. Rather than hitting the panic button, the two biggest countries in Oceania should reflect on their own perceptions and policies as set out in their respective defence papers, as these reveal how out of step they are with the times. They should also reconsider their policies towards Pacific island countries.
If there is a political vacuum, it is because Australia and New Zealand have for too long leaned on the United States without making commitments to improving the well-being of the island nations, which Canberra and Wellington seem to dismiss as their own backyard. Instead of bleating about China’s growing influence, Australia and New Zealand should join hands with China to usher in a better future for their smaller Pacific neighbours.