Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, made the announcement on Wednesday ending a flying visit to Fiji, the first ever by a Chinese premier to the Pacific Islands.

Addressing an economic and development conference, he told local leaders that China was committed to long term engagement with some of the world’s smallest and least populated Pacific nations.

 

"As far as China is concerned, to foster friendship and cooperation with the Pacific island countries is not a diplomatic expediency," Wen told the opening of the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation conference.

 

"Rather, it is a strategic decision. China has proved and will continue to prove itself a sincere, trustworthy and reliable friend and partner of the Pacific island countries forever."

 

Vying for influence

 

"China has proved and will continue to prove itself a sincere, trustworthy and reliable friend and partner of the Pacific island countries forever"

Wen Jiabao, Chinese prime minister 

China
and Taiwan have been vying for diplomatic recognition in the Pacific, and six island states which do recognise Taipei were not invited to the meetings at a luxury Fijian island resort.

Wen did not refer to the Taiwan issue in speeches during his 23-hour visit, but emphasised the prospect of growing economic ties between China and the Pacific Islands.

 

"Our respective economies are mutually complementary. China has funding and technical expertise. The island countries are rich in natural resources," he said.

 

Loans and trade incentives

 

Wen announced that China would provide three billion yuan ($375 million) in preferential loans in the next three years to boost cooperation in resources development, agriculture, fisheries and other key industries.

 

It will also offer zero tariffs for exports from the least  developed countries in the region which recognise Beijing ratehr than Taipei, as well as cancel any of their debts which matured at the end of 2005.

 

He also said that free anti-malaria medicines would be provided to affected Pacific countries over the next three years and training for 2000 government officials and technical staff.

 

Wen witnessed the signing of bilateral agreements with eight island countries during his stopover at the resort. The ministers also signed a regional framework agreement for economic cooperation between China and the tiny nations.

 

Dark-suited Chinese and Pacific officials mixed with hordes of security officers and tourists donning shorts and t-shirts in the lobbies of the hotels used as meeting venues.

 

Embracing China

 

"For the island countries, traditional trade and diplomatic ties with bigger nations remain; some are still strong, some are weakened as strategic interests and priorities change"

Laisenia Qarase, prime minister of Fiji

Pacific leaders welcomed the visit as an historic event and Laisenia Qarase, the Fijian prime minister, said it reflected shifting diplomacy and political realignments in the region.

  

He said China had emerged as a major presence in international affairs and a powerful and vital force in the Pacific.

 

"For the island countries, traditional trade and diplomatic ties with bigger nations remain; some are still strong, some are weakened as strategic interests and priorities change," he said.

 

"China defines a new and compelling reality, politically and economically."

 

Qarase said Pacific Island countries wanted to limit or remove their dependency on aid and this could only happen through increased international trade.

 

He had previously complained that Australia did not offer the same preferential access for Fijian garments as in the past, although he did not name any countries in his speech on Wednesday.

 

"We look now for new markets, where there is flexibility of entry and a readiness to meet the export needs of small, isolated island countries," he said.

 

"This is what we would like to engage on with China as we increasingly look north for the answers to our trade and investment aspirations."

 

Wen left Fiji late afternoon for New Zealand where he will spend two nights on his whistle-stop tour of the region.