China not seeking 'sphere of influence' in Pacific, Xi says

Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on May 28, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China is not seeking a sphere of influence in Pacific Ocean island states, President Xi Jinping told the visiting prime minister of Vanuatu amid fears in Western capitals of China's growing role in the region.

China has offered to help developing countries, including those in the Pacific, and many see Chinese lending as the best way to develop their economies. Critics say Chinese loans can lead countries into a debt trap, which Beijing denies.

The United States and Australia have looked on with particular concern at China's growing role in the Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will visit the Solomon Islands next week.

Mr Xi met Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai in Beijing's Great Hall of the People and said China upholds the principles of sincerity, real results and good faith to strengthen cooperation with Pacific island countries, China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on Tuesday (May 28).

"We have no private interests in island countries, and do not seek a so-called 'sphere of influence'," the ministry paraphrased Mr Xi as saying.

China will always be a reliable good friend and partner, he said.

"Countries, no matter big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community," Mr Xi said.

China also opposes "great-power chauvinism", he said, without offering details.

Mr Xi said Beijing was willing to deepen agricultural technology cooperation with Vanuatu and would continue to encourage Chinese companies to invest there.

Vanuatu and China denied reports last year that Beijing wanted to establish a permanent military presence there.

The Pacific is also an area of competition between China and self-ruled Taiwan, which maintains formal diplomatic ties with several island nations. China views Taiwan as merely a Chinese province with no right to diplomatic relations.

A top US official said last Friday that Pacific island countries that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan should maintain them in the face of "heavy handed" attempts by China to reduce Taiwan's overseas contacts.

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