Nauru blasts ‘insolent’ China for speaking out of turn at meeting

President Baron Divavesi Waqa of Nauru speaks during a high-level meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants at the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – China’s envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum was “very insolent” and a “bully” for speaking out of turn during a leaders’ meeting, the president of host-nation Nauru said, after an angry exchange made for a tense start to the annual gathering.

Nauru is hosting leaders of 18 Pacific nations, plus delegations from non-member countries including the United States and China, at a time of growing tension and rivalry in a srategically important region with access to swathes of resource-rich ocean.

“The Chinese demanded to be heard when (Tuvalu’s) prime minister was about to speak,” Nauru President Baron Waqa said at a news conference late on Tuesday, after media reported a heated start to the leaders’ closed-door meeting.

“He insisted and was very insolent about it, and created a big fuss and held up the meeting of leaders for a good number of minutes when he was only an official. So may be because he was from a big country he wanted to bully us,” Waqa said.

Nauru and Tuvalu are two of six Pacific countries to have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, another major source of tension with China, which regards Taiwan as a wayward province, to be taken back by force if necessary.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. China’s delegation was led by Du Qiwen, its ambassador to Fiji.

Waqa said protocol dictated speaking priority was given to ministers over diplomats.

China has become one of the dominant economic players in the Pacific, spending billions of dollars in trade, investment, aid and tourism in a region that staunch U.S. ally Australia has long regarded as its “back yard”.

Chinese lending to the region has surged from nearly zero to $1.3 billion over the last decade, stoking concern that tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt.

It is also the second-largest bilateral donor in the region, behind Australia. Nauru has no diplomatic relations with China.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters attended the leaders’ meeting, and had told reporters on Tuesday there was no walk-out by China’s delegation, contrary to some reports.

The dispute echoes an incident in 2017 when Chinese delegates were reported to have disrupted the opening remarks at a conference in Australia about conflict diamonds, because a Taiwan delegation was invited.

Separately, Nauru on Wednesday also reinstated the press credentials of a New Zealand journalist who had been briefly held by police for failing to seek permission to meet a refugee sent to Nauru under Australia’s hardline immigration policy.

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