September 26, 2023

Australia’s top diplomat to visit Samoa, Tonga trailing Chinese counterpart

Australia's new Foreign Minister Penny Wong is trying to rebuild relations with the Pacific Islands on a ten-day trip

Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong is trying to rebuild relations with the Pacific Islands on a ten-day trip – Copyright AFP SAEED KHAN

Australia’s recently sworn-in Foreign Minister Penny Wong is heading back to the Pacific Islands Wednesday, travelling to Samoa and Tonga just days after her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. 

As Australia and China duel for influence in the vast region, Wong announced she was getting back on a plane to “renew and strengthen Australia’s deep ties of friendship and family”. 

Since being sworn in nine days ago, Wong has already visited Japan — for a meeting of Quad countries the United States, India, Japan and Australia — and Fiji. 

Her latest trip comes as China’s foreign minister Wang Yi barnstorms through the region, looking to significantly deepen Beijing’s influence. 

Although Wang failed to secure support for a regional security deal that would have seen Beijing play a bigger role in sensitive areas like policing and cybersecurity, Wang has been inking a series of agreements on each of his stops. 

In Tonga on Tuesday, he pledged China’s support for sports stadiums and wind power projects, according to state media, while signing a series of deals on disaster prevention and mitigation, agriculture, fisheries and healthcare. 

In Samoa late last month, Wang signed a bilateral agreement that included a plan to build a police fingerprinting lab, in addition to an already announced police academy in the country.

Wang’s ten-day trip concludes with stops in Vanuatu on Wednesday and Papua New Guinea on Thursday and Friday. 

Australia’s new centre-left government is playing catch-up after years of relations with the Pacific Islands being hampered by the conservative government’s foot-dragging on climate change. 

Rising sea levels are seen as an existential threat by many of the low-lying Pacific Island nations. 

Visiting Fiji, Wong said Australia would set new, more ambitious emissions targets and bid to co-host a future UN climate conference with Pacific Island countries. 

There would be no more “disrespecting” Pacific nations or “ignoring” their calls to act on climate change, she said.