FILE - Micronesia's President David Panuelo talks with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Dec. 13, 2019. Panuelo is alleging that Chinese agents followed him during a recent trip to Fiji.

SUVA, (ABC PACIFIC) — A diplomatic spat has broken out between China and Fiji after Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka skipped a meeting with a top Chinese diplomat.

Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu was due to hold talks with Rabuka in Fiji after sitting down with senior Australian officials in Canberra last week. 

But plans for the high-level meeting were thrown into disarray after Rabuka took leave last week to mourn a close family member who passed away.

The prime minister proposed Deputy Prime Minister Manoa Kamikamica meet the Chinese vice-minister instead, but Chinese officials initially rejected that offer, insisting Ma was still intent on meeting with Rabuka himself.

The ABC has been told that Kamikamica met with the Chinese official delegation early Friday morning, but Rabuka did not join in — even though the prime minister had returned to work first thing Friday. 

It is not yet clear if Rabuka will agree to sit down with Ma later Friday, or in the coming days. 

But the episode risks exacerbating tensions between Chinese officials and Rabuka’s government, which has taken a noticeably more sceptical approach towards Beijing than the former administration under Frank Bainimarama.  

Earlier this year Rabuka announced Fiji would abolish a policing agreement it struck with China more than a decade ago, drawing a sharp response from the Chinese Embassy in Suva.

He also told the ABC earlier this month that his government would investigate claims by Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo that Chinese spies monitored a recent trip to Fiji — saying if true, the allegations would be a “slap in the face” to his country.  

And the prime minister angered Chinese officials by allowing Taiwan’s representative office to again call itself the Trade Mission of the Republic of China (Taiwan) — reversing a decision by the Bainimarama government, which forced it to downgrade its title to the Taipei Trade Office.  

The ABC has been told that Chinese officials have been intent on delivering a message directly to Rabuka about the importance of treading carefully on Taiwan, and respecting what Beijing sees as a “red line” issue which is core to its sovereignty.  

The Chinese Embassy in Suva has also been intensifying efforts to build closer ties to Rabuka’s People’s Alliance Party — hosting a social event for party workers earlier this month.

Fiji government sources say Chinese diplomats discussed the role of youth in development and the “importance of political continuity.”

The ABC sent questions to the Chinese Embassy in Suva about the meeting, but it did not reply.

However, the Embassy did post to social media pictures of the vice-minister meeting with the deputy prime minister and other officials.

“Vice Foreign Minister Ma said that, since China and Fiji established diplomatic relations 48 years ago, China has always regarded Fiji as a good friend, good brother and good partner,” the Embassy posted on Twitter.

“China does its best to support Fiji’s development and revitalisation with sincerity.

“Ma said that, in the new situation, China is willing to strengthen mutual beneficial cooperation with Fiji on the basis of respecting each other’s core interests, and push our bilateral relationship forward.”

The Embassy also said Fijian officials thanked China “for its long-term selfless assistance and support to Fiji”…. PACNEWS

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