8th November, 2018
China and Canberra should be cooperating in the South Pacific and not be cast as strategic rivals, China’s top diplomat said on Thursday, after Australia launched a multi-billion dollar fund to counter China’s rising influence in the region.
Standing alongside Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi made the conciliatory remarks after a meeting in Beijing widely billed as a step toward re-setting bilateral ties after a lengthy diplomatic chill.
Wang said that he had agreed with Payne that the two countries could combine their respective strengths and embark on trilateral cooperation with Pacific island countries.
“We are not rivals, and we can absolutely become cooperation partners,” Wang told newsmen, describing the meeting as important after the recent “ups and downs” in the relationship.
Payne said the discussions were “valuable, full and candid”.
“We’ve realistically acknowledged today that in a relationship as dynamic as ours, there will be from time to time differences.
“But what is important about that is how we manage those and we are focused on managing them respectfully, mindful of the tremendous opportunities the relationship presents to both our nations,” she said.
Ties became strained late 2017, when the previous Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, accused China of interfering in its domestic affairs.
The two countries have also been vying for influence in sparsely populated Pacific island countries that control vast swathes of resource-rich Ocean.
However, even as his foreign minister visited Beijing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison characterised the Pacific as its domain while offering the region up to A$3 billion (2.18 billion dollars) in cheap infrastructure loans and grants.
“This is our patch, this is our part of the world,” Morrison said in his most detailed foreign policy speech since becoming prime minister in August.
Morrison, speaking in Queensland, said Australia would invest in telecommunications, energy, transport and water projects in the region.
He also said Australia would also expand its diplomatic presence in the Pacific, posting staff to Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands.
According to him, there are also plans to strengthen Australia’s defence and security ties with Pacific islands through joint exercises and training.
Morrison did not name China in the speech, but analysts said it was a clear response to China’s spreading influence.