Australia's new foreign minister, Penny Wong, has traveled to New Zealand as the Canberra government intensifies its efforts to counter China's growing security and trade ambitions in the Pacific region. Australia is promising its regional neighbors stronger action to combat climate change.
This is Penny Wong’s third trip to the Pacific in less than a month since Australia’s left-of-center government won an election on May 21.
She’s been in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji as the recently-elected government in Canberra races to challenge China’s diplomatic efforts.
On a visit Thursday to New Zealand, the foreign minister said Australia should be more engaged in the region, blaming the previous government in Canberra for inaction.
Wong’s whirlwind diplomacy follows an extensive tour of the region earlier this month by the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi. He failed to persuade ten Pacific Island nations to join a trade and security pact, although some, including Kiribati and Samoa, did sign individual accords.
Beijing earlier agreed a security protocol with Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia, to enhance internal law enforcement and with relief from natural disasters. Officials in Beijing insisted China had no intention of competing with other countries for influence in the region.
Australia and its allies are worried, however, the Solomons accord will eventually give Beijing a strategic military foothold in the region.
Wong told Radio New Zealand that interference from countries outside of the region was not needed.
“Pacific security should be provided by the Pacific family," Wong said. "We do have concerns about the security of the Pacific being engaged in by nations outside of that Pacific family.”
Australia’s relationship with China has been corroded in recent years by a range of political and trade disputes.
Both Canberra and Wellington have watched nervously as China tries to expand its trade and security ties in the Pacific region.
Earlier this month, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met her Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese, in Sydney. Climate change and geopolitics were discussed, along with Australia’s controversial policy of deporting New Zealanders convicted of crimes.
Ardern’s complaint was that many of those expelled have been in Australia for most of their lives and are sent to a country where they have few family connections. Albanese said his new government could soften Australia’s deportation policy.