Beijing has condemned Australia for acting like a “condescending master” towards Pacific countries, insulting climate-vulnerable nations and “spreading the China threat fallacy among island countries”.
In excoriating remarks, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Pacific island leaders do not share Australia’s fear of Chinese influence in the Pacific, and accused Australian leaders of a cold war mentality.
Geng was asked to comment on an interview given to the Guardian by the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, at the conclusion of last week’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu.
Bainimarama said the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, “was very insulting, very condescending, not good for the relationship”.
“I gathered he was here only to make sure that the Australian policies were upheld by the Pacific island nations. I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine; apparently not.”
Speaking in Beijing, Geng said Bainimarama’s comments were “not the first time that leaders of Pacific island countries resented Australia’s behaviour. Australia might as well reflect upon itself.”
He said China had been providing assistance to island countries “with no political strings attached”.
“In the process, we fully respect the will of local governments and peoples, who sincerely welcome Chinese assistance as it has strongly boosted their economic and social development. Just as Prime Minister Bainimarama said… China doesn’t insult island countries or ‘go down and tell the world that we’ve given this much money to the Pacific islands’.
“With sincerity, real results, affinity and good faith on one side and a condescending master on the other, it is easy to see the stark contrast. The people of island countries, who are in the best position to judge, are fully aware of the difference.”
Geng reiterated Bainimarama’s comment that China was not competing with Australia in the region.
“Some in Australia have been spreading the China threat fallacy among island countries. They see China as a challenger to Australia’s influence in the region. We note that Fiji’s prime minister said that China is not competing with Australia in the region. Samoa’s prime minister also said that Pacific island leaders do not share Australia’s concerns about China’s rising influence in the region. These are fair remarks.”
Australia forcefully prosecuted its position on climate change at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu.
Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, told the Guardian that Australia declared several “red lines” during negotiations that it refused to negotiate on, meaning Pacific leaders had to remove all references to coal, to limiting warming to less than 1.5C, and to setting out a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 from the forum communique.
Morrison committed $500m in climate resilience and adaptation for the region, and said the final forum communique was “the sensible thing to do”.
“The Pacific is our home, which we share as a family of nations. We’re here to work with our Pacific partners to confront the potential challenges they face in the years ahead,” the prime minister said.
“We want a viable, sustainable, successful, sovereign, independent set of Pacific island states, working together of course with New Zealand and Australia. And for them to maintain and realise their way of life here in the Pacific islands.”
Under the premiership of Malcolm Turnbull, Australia declared a “step-up” in relations with the Pacific, and the country remains influential politically, and the largest aid donor in the region. But the relationship with Pacific countries has consistently fractured over climate.
Greenpeace said Australia’s continued commitment to coal would make it “the pariah of the Pacific”. Joseph Moeono-Kolio, the group’s head of Pacific, said: “How does Morrison reconcile calling the Pacific family while he persistently ignores our demands for Australia to reduce its emissions?”
And Pacific disquiet at Australia’s unwillingness to compromise over climate has been seen as allowing China to leverage a greater influence with Pacific neighbours. China’s aid to the Pacific has increased massively in recent years, pledging $4bn to the region in 2017 alone. (On money actually committed, however, Australia remains the largest donor to the region, Lowy Institute research reveals.)
And there is frustration from Australia that China is not held to the same standards over emissions and climate action.
At the same PIF last week, China’s special envoy to the Pacific, Wang Xuefeng, said China recognised the “legitimate demands” of small island states for greater action on climate change, saying developed nations must “earnestly carry out their obligations” under the Paris agreement.
In a barely disguised swipe clearly aimed at Beijing, Morrison said Australia would meet its Paris agreement emissions commitments, while other nations “will triple their emissions” by 2030.
“Australia accounts for 1.3% of the world’s emissions. Australia on its own won’t cool the climate and if we’re serious about it, we’ve got to actually understand that emissions don’t have a nationality.”