Tensions run high over China, refugees at Pacific summit

AFP and AP, YAREN, Nauru

Wed, Sep 05, 2018 - Page 1

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Nauru began in dramatic fashion yesterday, with Chinese diplomats storming out of a meeting and a New Zealand journalist detained for interviewing refugees held on the tiny island nation.

After a low-key opening ceremony late on Monday, tensions erupted almost as soon as formal business commenced yesterday, when China’s Du Qiwen attempted to address a meeting about climate change.

The meeting chairman, Nauruan President Baron Divavesi Waqa, stopped him from talking, prompting Du and the rest of the Chinese delegation to walk out.

The exchange highlighted sensitivities over Beijing’s rising influence in the region, where Nauru backs Taiwan over archrival China in the battle for diplomatic recognition.

Waqa said the Chinese official had demanded to be heard when other leaders were due to speak.

“And he insisted, and was very insolent about it, and created a big fuss and held up the meeting of leaders for a good number of minutes when he was only an official,” Waqa said. “Maybe because he was from a big country he wanted to bully us.”

Even before the forum started there had been tensions with China after several other nations threatened to pull out following a dispute over whether Chinese officials could use their diplomatic passports to enter Nauru.

Nauru refused to stamp entry visas into Chinese diplomatic passports, instead saying it would only process their personal passports.

Waqa said it had all been a misunderstanding, and that officials from both nations often traveled to the other country using ordinary passports.

A few hours later, police took veteran TVNZ journalist Barbara Dreaver into custody as she was interviewing an asylum seeker held on the island under Australia’s hardline immigration policies.

The plight of the refugees, particularly children, has threatened to overshadow the summit, despite attempts by Nauruan authorities to control visiting journalists.

Dreaver said she was held for three hours, her footage was confiscated and her PIF media accreditation was revoked.

She described herself as “fine and dandy” after her release, but said she was now barred from attending PIF press conferences.

“I can do forum stories, but I’m not allowed to report on anything to do with the refugees,” she told TVNZ.

Waqa disputed whether Dreaver was detained, saying she had been taken to the police station for questioning and had cooperated. He said she breached protocols by not asking permission to speak to refugees in the high-tension environment.

“The media coming are not interested in the Pacific, but interested in something else,” Waqa said. “We knew this all along, and it’s sad.”