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After Pacific islanders postpone regional accord, China's foreign minister visits Tonga

Image: Reuters Berita 24 English - On a trip of the Pacific islands region, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi inked agreements for police...

Image: Reuters

Berita 24 English - On a trip of the Pacific islands region, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi inked agreements for police equipment and fisheries cooperation in Tonga on Tuesday. Beijing's plans for stronger security relations have alarmed US allies.

In a meeting with Wang a day earlier, Pacific island governments were unable to reach an agreement on a broad regional trade and security pact that China had offered.

Wang signed multiple bilateral agreements with Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni in Tonga, and also paid a visit to King Tupou VI at the Royal Palace, according to the Tonga government.

"Both talks focused on mutual respect and the people of China and Tonga's common interest," it stated.

It claimed that agreements between the two nations' disaster management agencies, as well as a memorandum on the "blue economy" and China's provision of a police laboratory and customs inspection equipment, will help Tonga's long-term growth.

Sovaleni "expressed Tonga's gratitude to China for the help provided in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption... and tsunami."

Tonga, which was struck by a volcano eruption and tsunami in January, owes China's Export-Import Bank two-thirds of its $195 million external debt, according to its budget.

Its largest donors are Australia and New Zealand, reflecting the financial strains that several Pacific islands are experiencing as geopolitical tensions between China and US allies escalate.

Following the eruption, Australia and New Zealand worked together with allies to arrange a relief operation that included defense flights and naval boats. In a well publicized relief operation, China also dispatched aid and equipment on commercial and naval vessels.

Tonga is yet to remark on whether it supports a regional policing cooperation with China, having appointed the first Australian as police commissioner this month.

A virtual meeting convened by Wang in Fiji with counterparts from ten island nations on Monday postponed consideration of a broad pact proposed by China that covers policing, security, fishing, data, and a free trade zone.

A draft communique and five-year action plan were leaked ahead of the meeting, prompting concerns that the agreement will link the countries too closely to China and heighten geopolitical tensions with the US.

Despite their modest populations and economy, each Pacific country has a say in international institutions like the United Nations. They also have control over enormous swaths of resource-rich water and access to a strategically important military sector.

Fiame Naomi Mataafa, Prime Minister of Samoa, was among the island leaders who urged for a postponement, and wants important regional decisions to be made through the Pacific Islands Forum group, according to Samoan media.

"We haven't made a decision because we didn't have enough time to look at it," Fiame said in a speech also shared on social media by her office, according to the Samoan news service Talamua.

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