WELLINGTON (AFP) - China is planning a summit of Pacific island leaders in November, Papua New Guinea has revealed, as New Zealand warned Tuesday (July 10) Beijing was attempting to fill a "vacuum" in the long-neglected region.
President Xi Jinping wants to hold the meeting ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Port Moresby from Nov 12-18.
"(I) invite you to attend a Pacific Island leaders' meeting with the President of China, His Excellency Xi Jinping, during his state visit to Papua New Guinea in the days before the APEC Leaders' Meeting," PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said in an address to the Fiji parliament in Suva on Monday.
O'Neill did not detail the meeting's agenda but the fact that 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 in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific countries between 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 hearts and minds among 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 geo-political tensions were rising in the Pacific.
"The Japanese recognise it, the French recognise it, the European Union, Australia, most of Asia recognise it," he told Radio New Zealand Tuesday.
"It's with great clarity you can see we live in a much more highly stressed area of geo-political 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 and noted: "China holds views on human rights and freedom of information that stand in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand."
Peters acknowledged that Chinese diplomats had raised concerns about the country's portrayal in the paper but said it reflected reality.
"We don't do our population any service by gilding the lily and pulling our verbal punches, so to speak," he said. "We should tell the people exactly what's happening."