Pacific journalists have expressed serious concerns about the secrecy surrounding the Chinese foreign minister’s upcoming marathon Pacific tour, which will visit eight countries in 10 days.
Wang Yi will travel to the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Fiji between May 26 and June 4, in a visit to the region described as “extraordinary and without Previous” by Pacific experts.
It comes at a time when China’s engagement in the region has seen an “acceleration of pace”, as it seeks to cement relations and sign economic, infrastructure and security agreements.
Wang Yi’s first stop is expected to be in the Solomon Islands on Thursday, where he will build on an alliance that has been in the international spotlight in recent months after the leaked draft security agreement signed by the two governments.
Despite speculation about the trip for weeks, China’s foreign ministry declined to answer questions about the potential visit until Tuesday evening, the day before the trip. Even then, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin declined to confirm when Wang Yi would arrive in the Solomon Islands.
Journalists seeking to cover the Solomon Islands leg of the tour for international media say they have been barred from attending press events, while journalists allowed access are severely restricted in their ability to pose questions.
Georgina Kekea, president of the Solomon Islands Media Association, said it was very difficult to get information about Wang’s visit to the country, including an itinerary.
“We asked for copies of the program so that we could participate in terms of getting video or interviews, but it’s not coming. I don’t know how to qualify that, whether it’s his restriction of the press, I guess yes,” she said.
She said there was only one press event scheduled in Honiara during Wang’s two-day visit – Thursday – but only journalists from two Solomon Islands newspapers, the national broadcaster and media Chinese were allowed to attend.
Journalists such as Kekea, who often work for international outlets such as The Guardian and Al Jazeera, did not receive accreditation for the event.
“We know the Solomon Islands borders have been closed since 2020 so we don’t have international journalists to cover the story and this is an event of international concern so a few of the journalists are working for international organisations. …but we’re not given that opportunity to be part of the media group that gets credentials to be there in person,” she said.
Kekea said the reason given was a concern about Covid, but she felt it was “just an excuse”. The Solomon Islands has recorded 18,000 cases of the virus and around 150 deaths, with deaths peaking in late February.
Kekea added that from the broadcast she saw, the press will only be able to ask the foreign minister two questions: one from a journalist from the Solomon Islands and the other from a Chinese media.
“It’s quite worrying for us, we really have good freedom to do our job, but when it comes to these events, they seem to be blocking us.”
Secrecy still surrounds the text of the security agreement signed by China and the Solomon Islands. It has not been made public or shared with parliamentarians, despite the opposition asking for this to happen.
Dorothy Wickham, a veteran Solomon Islands journalist, wrote earlier this month that since the draft security deal was leaked she has seen a media ‘blackout’ unlike anything she has experienced over the past of his three decades of journalism.
Of the upcoming visit, Wickham tweeted: ‘Well hopefully we’ll be treated with some form of respect and have a press conference once all formalities are complete.’
China is widely expected to sign new deals with the Solomon Islands during their visit and will also seek to sign deals with other Pacific nations during the tour.
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 fears Kiribati will sign a deal with China granting it special fishing rights in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), which was one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, until the Kiribati government announced last year that it would open PIPA to commercial fishing.
Dr Anna Powles, senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said that while Australia, New Zealand and the United States will be watching China’s Pacific tour closely, there is little they can or should do to prevent sovereign Pacific nations from signing treaties with China.
“These are sovereign countries that will pursue agreements based on their national interests,” she said.
“What Australia, New Zealand and the United States can do is seek to be better partners and seek to deepen those relationships so that when deals like these are made, New Zealand and Australia in particular, can help the Pacific countries get the best possible deal…and from a strategic point of view, it narrows the permission space in which China can operate.