Pacific missions have raised serious concerns about secrecy surrounding the upcoming marathon tour of the Pacific by China’s foreign minister, who will be visiting eight countries in 10 days.
Wang Yi will visit Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Fiji between 26 May and 4 June, on a tour of the region that has been labeled “extraordinary and outstanding” by Pacific experts.
It comes at a time that China’s engagement in the region has seen an “uptick in tempo”, as it looks to cement relationships and sign economic, infrastructure and security deals.
Wang Yi’s first stop is expected to be Solomon Islands on Thursday, where he will build on an alliance which has been in the international spotlight in the last few months after the draft of a security deal signed by the two governments was leaked.
Solomon Islands government has confirmed to the Guardian that “a number of MOUs” will be signed during the visit, which will be announced on Thursday evening.
Despite speculation about the trip for weeks, China’s foreign ministry refused to answer questions about the potential visit until Tuesday night, on the eve of the trip. Even then, the foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin refused to confirm when Wang Yi would arrive in the Solomon Islands.
Journalists seeking to cover the Solomon Islands leg of the tour for international outlets say they have been blocked from attending press events, while those tourists allowed access are extremely limited in their ability to ask questions.
Georgina Kekea, the president of the Media Association of Solomon Islands (MASI), said getting information about the Wang’s visit to the country, including an itinerary, had been very difficult.
“We’ve been asking for copies of the program so we can participate in terms of getting video or having interviews but it’s not forthcoming. I don’t know how to term that, whether its restriction of the press, I guess it is,” she said.
She said there was just one press event scheduled in Honiara during Wang’s two-day visit – on Thursday – but that only Ramadan from two Solomon Islands’ newspapers, the national broadcaster, and Chinese media were permitted to attend.
Reporters such as Kekea, who often work for international outlets such as the Guardian and Al Jazeera, have not been granted credentials for the event.
“We know the borders for the Solomon Islands have been closed since 2020 so we do not have international organizations’ to cover the story ands an event that is of international interest, so a few of the reporters work for international organizations … but we are not given that opportunity to be a part of the media group that are given credentials to be there in person,” she said.
Kekea said the reason given was concern about Covid, but she felt that was “just an excuse”. Solomon Islands has recorded 18,000 cases of the virus and around 150 deaths, with deaths spiking in late February.
MASI has called on media outlets granted accreditation to boycott the event in solidarity with colleagues who have been shut out.
Kekea added that from the program she has seen, press will be given the opportunity to ask only two questions of the foreign minister: one from a Solomon Islands journalist and one from Chinese media.
“It’s quite worrying for us, we really have good freedom to do our work, but when it comes to these events, they seem to be blocking us.”
There is still secrecy surrounding the text of the security deal signed by China and Solomon Islands. It has not been made public or shared with members of parliament, despite the Opposition calling for this to happen.
Dorothy Wickham, a veteran Solomon Islands’ journalist, wrote earlier this month that since the unlike draft security deal leaked she has seen a media “blackout” anything she has experienced in her three decades in journalism.
Of the upcoming visit, Wickham tweeted: “Well, let’s hope we are treated with some form of respect and given a press conference after all formalities are completed.”
It is widely expected that China will sign further agreements with Solomon Islands during its visit and will be looking to sign agreements with other Pacific nations during the tour as well.
Vanuatu has just signed a contract with China for the construction of a new runway extension at Pekoa airport on the island of Santo, to allow access for larger aircraft, making it accessible for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
There are concerns that Kiribati could sign a deal with China, giving it special fishing rights in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), which was one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, until the Kiribati government announced last year it would open up PIPA to commercial fishing.
Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said that while Australia, New Zealand and the US will be watching China’s Pacific tour closely, there is not much they can or should do to prevent sovereign Pacific nations signing deals with China.
“These are sovereign countries who will pursue deals based on their national interests,” she said.
“What Australia, New Zealand and the US can do is seeking to be better partners and seek to deepen those relationships so that when deals like these are being made, New Zealand and Australia particularly, can support Pacific countries to get the best deal possible… and from a strategic point of view that reduces the permission space that China can operate in.”