Beijing special envoy, on Pacific charm offensive, says China is the future

Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Beijing special envoy, on Pacific charm offensive, says China is the future China’s special envoy for Pacific Island countries affairs, Qian Bo (right), speaks to students at the Chinese-built Butuka Academy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, March 7, 2023.
Harlyne Joku/BenarNews

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET on March 9, 2023

Beijing’s newly appointed special envoy to the Pacific has underlined China’s investment in infrastructure during his first official trip to the region, as Australia and the United States step up efforts to keep island nations in their orbit. 

Qian Bo, the envoy, met with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko on Tuesday after visiting the Federated States of Micronesia last week. 

“Studying and learning the Chinese language is very important because China represents the future of the world,” Qian said in a speech to students at the Beijing-built Butuka Academy in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

As part of his visit, reporters from local news organizations were given a tour of the school, including observing a Mandarin lesson. The school, which opened in 2018, has about 2,700 students from kindergarten to high school age.

China’s statement following Qian’s visit to Micronesia said he had cordial conversations with President David Panuelo and talks with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Kandhi Elieisar. Micronesia’s statement did not mention a meeting between Panuelo and Qian. A spokesman for Panuelo told BenarNews that the president didn’t meet with Qian.

During the past two decades China has become a source of infrastructure, loans and aid for economically-lagging island nations in the Pacific as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain allies in international organizations such as the United Nations.

Beijing also hopes to establish a military presence in the Pacific in a challenge to American dominance, some analysts say. Last year, the Asian superpower signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the United States and Australia, which have stepped up their efforts to remain dominant powers in the region.

Qian and Tkatchenko had a private 50-minute meeting at the school. Their scheduled press conference, which was part of Papua New Guinea’s official program for the visit, did not take place.

Qian met with Marape later in the day and invited him to address a government event in China later this month, according to a statement from Marape’s office. China’s Foreign Ministry hasn’t said if Qian is visiting other Pacific island countries after Papua New Guinea.

“This is the best school in the Pacific in terms of quality infrastructure and lots of smiling faces,” Qian told the students.

A teacher of Mandarin gestures while instructing students during a class at the Butuka Academy in Port Moresby, March 7, 2023. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

China’s government had announced plans for the special envoy role in mid-2022, when then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the region in a failed effort to get 10 island nations to sign up to a trade and security deal. 

Beijing revealed the appointment of Qian, who was China’s ambassador to Fiji, in mid-February in response to a question from Chinese state media during a regular press conference at the foreign ministry. 

Marape’s statement said he had yet to officially accept the speaking invitation delivered by Qian. He praised Chinese President Xi Jinping and welcomed the recent endorsement of a third term for Xi under China’s one-party authoritarian system.

“Chinese stability ensures [the] global world economy has a stable outlook. That is the contribution his re-election has given to the world,” Marape said.

No new Chinese initiatives were announced during Qian’s visit to Papua New Guinea or from his visit to the Federated States of Micronesia, which has close relations with the United States. China’s statement said Micronesia had reiterated commitment to the One China principle. Micronesia’s statement didn’t mention the One China policy.

Four of the 14 states that recognize Taiwan instead of Beijing are in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2109.

Joseph Cella, the American ambassador to Fiji from 2019 to 2021, said Qian’s appointment as special envoy was an odd decision because his abrasive style had alienated officials in Fiji when he served as ambassador there.

“Rather than the patient work of building relationships and rapport, Mr. Qian specialized in splashy giveaways, from rugby balls to fancy buses,” Cella said in a March 1 opinion piece for the Washington Times. 

“Mr. Qian was also known for his aggressive stunts, which angered and embarrassed his hosts,” Cella said.

This story has been updated to reflect that China and Micronesia gave different accounts of what happened during Qian Bo’s visit. An earlier version also incorrectly attributed statements about the One China policy to the Federated States of Micronesia.


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