Julie Bishop in balancing act after criticism

AUSTRALIA’S foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has attempted to walk back criticism of China’s Pacific aid program by one of her ministerial colleagues, after Beijing labelled Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’s intervention as “nothing but irresponsible”.

In her first statement since Fierravanti-Wells, the international development minister, criticised China for building “white elephant” infrastructure projects in Pacific nations, Bishop was careful not to disagree with the spirit of her colleague’s point.

However, the statement, aimed at quelling a growing diplomatic furore, also sought to reassure China it was appreciated.

“The Australian government welcomes investment in developing nations in the Pacific that supports sustainable economic growth, and which does not impose onerous debt burdens on regional governments,” she said.

“Australia works with a wide range of development partners, including China, in pursuit of the goal of eliminating poverty in our region and globally.”

Bishop’s statement followed China’s newswire service Xinhua’s publishing of an online commentary piece on Wednesday evening, calling out Australia as the “least friendly nation to China in 2017”, based on the findings of an online poll.

“If Australia really cares about its Pacific neighbours, it should first learn from China’s to treat those much smaller neighbours as equals and refrain from behaving like an arrogant overlord,” it reported.

“Then it could learn, again from China, to contribute constructive ideas, if not funds, to address the real concerns of the peoples in those countries.”

In interviews with the ABC and the Australian, Fierravanti-Wells said China was building “roads to nowhere” in the Pacific, and raised concerns the island nations were taking on debt they could not afford to repay.

China responded by making formal representations to Australia’s embassy in Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, told the ABC Australia should “engage in self-reflection instead of pointing fingers and making irresponsible remarks on other countries”.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, described the situation as “clumsy” on Wednesday.

“Let’s remember that China has played an increasing role in the Pacific, while the Coalition, under Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, have increasingly abandoned the region, relentlessly hacking at our foreign aid funding and seeing an $11bn cut to the development budget since they won government,” she told the ABC.

“Well, Pacific island neighbours have felt the impact of these cuts.”

China’s increased role in the Pacific, its growing international influence, and the continuation of its hostility with Taiwan over that nation’s independence, continue to be closely monitored by Australia and its allies.