Australia’s Finance Minister Penny Wong speaks during an interview after a meeting between Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) finance ministers in Moscow August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

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SYDNEY, June 1 (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong will travel to the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga on Friday, days after her Chinese counterpart visited and discussed Tonga’s heavy debts to Beijing, said announced the government of Tonga.

Wong will also travel to Samoa for the 60th anniversary of independence celebrations, in his second visit to the Pacific islands since being sworn in last week, his office said. The trip comes as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi continues a tour of eight countries in the region, and the United States and its allies are expressing concern over Beijing’s ambitions for security ties. Read more

Wong said Australia wanted to listen to Pacific leaders.

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“We will increase our contribution to regional security: we understand that Pacific security is the responsibility of the Pacific family, of which Australia is a part,” she said in a statement.

Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said earlier that six deals were signed with China’s Wang during his trip to the capital Nuku’alofa, with his office confirming talks had taken place over Tonga’s loans to the China.

Tonga, which was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami in January, has an external debt of $195 million, or 35.9% of its GDP, two-thirds of which is owed to the China Import Bank. export, according to its budget. Read more

Debt repayments to China rise in 2024, on a loan used to rebuild its central business district after the 2006 riots.

Australia and New Zealand are its largest donor countries, the budget also shows.

VISIT TO VANUATU

China’s Wang arrived in Vanuatu on Wednesday, where Vanuatu broadcaster VBTC said it met with Prime Minister Bob Loughman at the 1,000-seat convention center donated by China in 2016, to sign agreements and discuss bilateral and international issues.

Other major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in Vanuatu include its parliament, a highway, a tuna processing plant and a large wharf.

On Monday, a virtual meeting hosted by Wang in Fiji with counterparts from 10 island nations postponed consideration of a comprehensive agreement covering police, security, fisheries, data and a free trade area, proposed by the China.

China has since released a position paper on “mutual respect and common development with Pacific island countries”, listing a series of topics it wants to include in a multilateral agreement.

Several Pacific countries have said any regional pact with China should first be discussed within the Pacific Islands Forum, a group which also includes members with diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not with Beijing, as well as with Australia and New Zealand.

US President Joe Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday raised concerns about China’s attempt to expand its influence in the Pacific.

Biden said Washington had no desire to dictate to the region but to partner with them. “We still have work to do in these Pacific islands,” he said. Read more

Despite their small populations and economies, each Pacific state represents a vote in international forums such as the United Nations. They also control vast expanses of resource-rich oceans and access to a region of strategic military importance.

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Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Tom Hogue and Lincoln Feast

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