BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, during a visit to Fiji on Monday, mentioned China's plan for a summit of Pacific island leaders later this year, it no doubt never entered his mind that it could spark such a firestorm in Australia and New Zealand.
In an address to Fiji's parliament, O'Neill said that President Xi Jinping wishes to hold a meeting in Papua New Guinea ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that is to be held in Port Moresby from Nov 11 to Nov 18.
This caused consternation in Australia and New Zealand, with New Zealand's acting prime minister Winston Peters issuing a warning about rising geopolitical tensions in the region as a result of Beijing's attempt to fill what he said was a "vacuum" in the region.
Meanwhile, The Australian newspaper said the intended summit is "a display of confidence in China's growing relationships in the region", saying it "sends a message to Australia".
But Australia and New Zealand should not over-interpret China's plan for a summit with leaders from Pacific island countries which have diplomatic ties with China.
Papua New Guinea as host to this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders' Meeting, will naturally be a venue for multilateral diplomacy for participating countries.
Rather than hitting the panic button, the two biggest countries in Oceania should reflect on their own perceptions and policies, as set out in their respective defense papers, as these reveal how out of step they are with the times.
They should also reconsider their policies toward Pacific island countries.
Viewing these smaller neighbours as their backyard, Canberra and Wellington have long been accused of providing insufficient support and assistance to these countries' development.
If there is a political vacuum in the region, it is because Australia and New Zealand have for too long leaned on the United States, without making long-term commitment to improving the well-being and welfare of the island nations.
It is only recently when China has increased its loans and aid to Pacific island countries that Australia and New Zealand have started to pay more attention to the region.
China has no intention to fill whatever vacuum there is in the region or compete for influence.
Instead of bleating about China's growing influence, Australia and New Zealand should join hands with China to usher in a better future for their smaller Pacific neighbours.
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