China's Xi makes push into Pacific; scores 'own goal' with block on media

By Charlotte Greenfield and Philip Wen
China's President Xi Jinping inspects the guard of honour at Parliament House in Port Moresby on November 16, 2018, ahead of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. Saeed Khan/Pool via REUTERS

By Charlotte Greenfield and Philip Wen

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) - President Xi Jinping made a push to expand China's influence in the Pacific on Friday, holding a forum with leaders of eight small island countries in Papua New Guinea.

But Chinese officials barred most media, including reporters from the Pacific, from the forum at which Xi met leaders from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, as well as Papua New Guinea, in its capital Port Moresby ahead of an APEC summit this weekend.

China's efforts to win friends in the resource-rich Pacific push have been watched warily by the traditionally influential powers in the region - Australia, New Zealand and the United States - who were not invited to Friday's forum.

But to the disappointment of many of the journalists there to report on China's role in the region, Chinese officials barred access to all media, apart from a small list of outlets, citing space and security concerns.

Many of those left out grumbled about what they saw as a lack of transparency around China's efforts to gain new allies.

"It just sends such a terrible signal," said Jonathan Pryke of Sydney-based think-tank the Lowy Institute.

"It just seems like they are trying to buy influence but not build influence," he said, referring to Chinese aid to the region.

Dozens of accredited journalists were turned away despite being invited to attend by PNG officials, who also arranged transport to the well-guarded forum venue.

Chinese officials said they had not been informed of the host's plans and had to limit media numbers.

One official suggested journalists could look out for reports on the forum published by China's state-run news agency Xinhua.

Lina Keapu, photojournalist at PNG's Sunday Chronicle newspaper said it was a "slap in the face".

"As the local media, we should be there covering it and getting the news to our national public," she said.

Pita Ligaiula, a journalist with the Pacific Island News Association, based in Fiji, said Chinese influence was among the big issues affecting the region and it was important to be able to inform the public about its intentions.

"I come all the way from Fiji only to be told we are not invited to cover this," he said.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Pryke said China had scored an "own goal" by "marginalising domestic media in their own country" when they could have anticipated plenty of positive coverage from the event.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Philip Wen in PORT MORESBY; Editing by Robert Birsel)