WELLINGTON • China is planning a summit of Pacific island leaders in November, Papua New Guinea has revealed, as New Zealand warned Beijing was attempting to fill a "vacuum" in the long-neglected region.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to hold the meeting ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Port Moresby from Nov 12 to 18.
"(I) invite you to attend a Pacific island leaders' meeting with the President of China Xi Jinping, during his state visit to Papua New Guinea in the days before the Apec Leaders' Meeting," Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said in an address to the Fiji Parliament in Suva on Monday.
Mr O'Neill did not give details of the meeting's agenda but the fact that Mr Xi is seeking a sit-down with the region's small island nations will draw attention in Canberra, Wellington and beyond.
Australia and New Zealand have long regarded Oceania as their backyard but China has become increasingly assertive in the region over the past decade.
Australia's Lowy Institute think-tank estimates China provided US$1.78 billion (S$2.41 billion) in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations in 2006-16.
The region is also home to a cluster of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies after Chinese efforts in recent years have whittled down the number of countries that continue to recognise the self-ruled island.
After years of inaction, both Canberra and Wellington significantly boosted aid spending in the region this year in a bid to win back the island nations.
They have also announced plans to upgrade their military capabilities, with Australia investing in surveillance drones and New Zealand buying P-8 Poseidon spy planes.
New Zealand's Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said geopolitical tensions were rising in the Pacific. He told Radio New Zealand yesterday: "It's with great clarity you can see we live in a much more highly stressed area of geopolitical competition because we have left, some of us, a vacuum there which others would fill."
New Zealand released a defence policy paper last week that addressed the perceived threat from China in unusually blunt language. It said Beijing was working to increase its influence in the Pacific.