A visa row between China and host nation Nauru almost derailed the Pacific’s largest annual diplomatic summit, it emerged Tuesday, exposing sensitivities about Beijing’s rising influence in the region.
As formal discussions began at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, leaked letters revealed some members threatened to boycott the meeting over Nauru’s treatment of Chinese delegates.
Nauru does not have diplomatic relations with China, instead recognising self-ruled Taiwan, which has paid for much of the infrastructure being used to host the PIF summit.
Beijing and Taipei have vied for diplomatic influence in the Pacific for decades, with both sides offering aid and support to small island states in return for recognition.
In an apparent bid to tweak the nose of Chinese delegates, Nauru refused to stamp entry visas into their diplomatic passports, instead saying it would only process their personal passports.
While seemingly a minor detail, it provoked a furious response from other PIF members, many of whom receive development aid and concessional loans from Beijing.
China claims sovereignty over the democratic island and relations between the two have worsened since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, as her government refuses to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of “one China”.
Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi sent a letter to Nauru President Baron Waqa threatening to withdraw from the summit and warning other leaders were likely to follow suit.
“Your unilateral action as President of Nauru is a dangerous precedent that I believe may not be accepted by forum leaders,” he wrote in a letter obtained by AFP.
He added: “The decision taken by your government questions the integrity, credibility and foundation of our organisation.”
Waqa eventually relented and proposed a compromise in which the Chinese delegation had their visa acceptance letters stamped, rather than their passports.
– ‘Rock and a hard place’ –
China does not belong to the PIF but is one of 18 countries that attends as a “dialogue partner” for discussions with member nations.
Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank estimates China provided US$1.78 billion in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations between 2006-16.
The “soft power” wielded by Beijing has alarmed Australia and New Zealand, with both countries boosting their own aid programmes in a bid to maintain influence in a region they regard as their backyard.
New Zealand’s desire to rekindle relations with its Pacific neighbours is so intense that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is leaving her newborn baby Neve at home in Auckland to attend the summit Wednesday for just one day.
Ardern in June became only the second world leader to give birth while in office after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990.
But her daughter has not had vaccinations and cannot yet travel.
Some political pundits criticised the extra NZ$80,000 ($53,000) Arden’s flying visit would cost, on top of the travel expenses of New Zealand’s official delegation.
“I was between a rock and a hard place, damned if I did and damned if I didn’t,” she told reporters.
“At the end of the day the option was go for a short time or don’t go at all.”
Ardern said New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of the estimated 900 asylum seekers on Nauru was still on the table.
They are on the island as part of Australia’s tough immigration policy, which sees asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat detained and processed in remote camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Concerns over the asylum seekers’ welfare has dominated the lead up to the PIF summit, with rights groups alleging many are suffering mental health issues due to indefinite detention and systemic abuse.