THE controversy surrounding the ejection of China’s head of delegation from a meeting between Pacific leaders and donor partners at the 49th Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru was unfortunate as much as it was avertable.
Of course in saying that, we are not attempting to condone the seemingly unruly and disrespectful behaviour of the Chinese diplomat when he reportedly hijacked the discussions at the Forum Dialogue to complain bitterly about the way his delegation had been treated by the host country. His so called crime was that he spoke when it was not his turn to speak, and some say, refused to stop his intervention when told to do so by the chair.
Yes there were other ways and avenues the disgruntled delegate could have followed to raise his grievances.
Yes he could have personally raised his government’s concerns directly with the Forum chair or with the secretary general of the Forum, without the need to be dramatic about it by shouting and stormed around the conference hall before making his exit.
Or he could have got his key allies in the Pacific, and there are quite a few of them, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa to name but three, to address this matter swiftly and amicably.
In fact the latter did take place, according to people close to the matter under discussion. Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama telephoned (as he was in Fiji and did not attend the summit) the host of the Forum and President of Nauru, Baron Waqa to convey Beijing’s displeasure at the way their delegation had been treated.
Samoa’s Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegao also weighted into the disputation by sending off a strongly-worded letter to Waqa and threatening to call off the summit if the Chinese delegation were not accorded the same courtesies as the rest of them. This letter was dispatched a day or two before the actual Forum proper began, so he was still the Forum chair.
Papua New Guinea on the other hand voted with its feet so to speak. The treatment of the Chinese delegation was given as one of the reasons Prime Minister Peter O’Neil opted to – like Fiji’s Bainimarama – give this year’s Forum a miss, sending instead his foreign minister Rimbink Pato.
But all these theatrics, if we can call it that, are in our view unnecessary and avoidable. You cannot really blame China if you start shifting the proverbial goal post midway through the game, or actually a few days before leaders were due to arrive in Nauru for their annual conclave. You do not issue guests with their entry visa only to inform them a few weeks later that the issuance was a mistake and that it would be withdrawn, which practically meant that all members of the Chinese delegation to the 49th Forum had to travel without their diplomatic passports and would be treated like any ordinary visitor to Nauru, stripped of all the VIP courtesies and privileges.
You also do not change the speaking rules at the eleventh hour by telling China that they are not entitled to address the meeting because their delegation head is not a cabinet minister and accordingly, non-ministers ouught to submit their presentations to the chair and are not entitled to address leaders.
One does not fly thousands of kilometres from Beijing to the tiny island in the Pacific Ocean only to be told that they have been stripped of their VIP status and would not be able to address the meeting! It is no wonder the head of delegation for China was exasperated if not bitterly annoyed.
No one needs to be Enstein to guess the reasons behind this poor treatment. Nauru, as host of this year’s Forum recognises not China but Taiwan. The auditorium in which the leaders were meeting in Nauru was built by Taiwan. In fact the Boeing 737-200 jets that flew in many of the Forum delegates were also donated by Taiwan.
Be that at it may, no government delegation ought to be treated in such an appalling if not mediocre way.
When a group of Pacific journalists (including the editor of this magazine) were detained at Jackson International Airport as they arrived for the 46th Pacific Islands Forum that Papua New Guinea was hosting in 2015 because they did not have the journalist visa on their passports, a call was made for the Forum Secretariat to work on a template that features minimum standard requirements all interested hosts of the Forum must agree to and abide by.
Waiving journalist visa should be included in that template. So should be the offering of VIP courtesies and privileges to all state delegations.
Taipei may find Beijing contemptible but both capitals are long standing donors and therefore partners of the 19 countries and territories that are members of the Pacific Islands Forum, and much as they disliked each other, both have a place and role in our part of the Ocean.
With another ally of Taiwan, Tuvalu destined to host next year’s 50th Forum Leaders’ summit, no one can rule out the likelihood of this on-going spat between the two Chinas to reach the shores of Funafuti. And we should not expect such diplomatic tit for tat to end unless a hosting of the Pacific Island Forum’s minimum standard requirement template is adopted and strictly adhered to.