(SBS NEWS): The leaders of small Pacific island nations are demanding a greater role in a key Asia-Pacific forum meeting this weekend.
Australia, New Zealand and PNG are the only south-western Pacific members of APEC, while other island leaders have been invited for the first time as observers.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielagaoi told SBS News that’s not good enough.
“In short we should have been full members of the APEC, all the ‘Ps’ in Pacific should be members of that great body,” he said.
“It is my great hope that we will be full members, because it is that great market in Asia that would become the biggest destination for what we produce and Asia would become the biggest source market for tourism which fuels most of our economies.
“We are also the custodians of the biggest ocean in the world with all the marine resources.”
China’s president is due to woo Pacific leaders by hosting a function in Port Moresby, as is prime minister Scott Morrison who has planned a BBQ for them.
Tonga has previously expressed concern about Pacific island nations becoming Chinese debt colonies.
“In the case of Tonga, we have a huge loan with China and this is one of the issues which can be raised in our meeting with Chinese president,” Tongan prime minister ʻAkilisi Pōhiva told SBS, adding he hopes to renegotiate the debt.
“It’s quite obviously the presence of People’s Republic of China in the region is a real threat. That’s how I look at it, a real threat to the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
“It’s an issue for the big countries, not the small, but we will continue to work with our donor partners.”
The Cook Islands is being courted by both Australia, with the opening of a diplomatic post, and China with which it is about to sign a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreement.
“China has been our friend for 20 years now. All this talk about China stepping into the region is misguided and we certainly don’t see it as a threat to any of our friends in the region,” said Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna.
“We are friends with them just as we are with Australia and New Zealand.”
“Yes we are signing on to the BRI and once the media has had a good look at it, they will find all the negative talk is without basis.”
Australia’s prime minister will land in Port Moresby this weekend, after last week announcing a foreign policy pivot to the Pacific including a $3 billion infrastructure pledge.
“We’re very excited by the announcement by prime minister Morrison and that they will open a diplomatic mission (in Cook Islands) is a major development for us,” Mr Puna said.
The Morrison government has also just announced it will expand its Pacific Labour Scheme to additional island nations and boost the original intake cap of 2000 workers this year.
“It’s a great vision displayed by the leadership of Australia, they are well endowed with God’s resources, and under Christian belief you should help a brother in need,” said Samoa’s prime minister.