China's foreign minister Wang Yi has stopped over at the island nation Kiribati as part of a Pacific tour aimed at laying the groundwork for a regional trade and security pact that's alarmed the United States and its allies.
Wang met with his counterpart and Kiribati president, Taneti Maamau, for discussions on fisheries, education and health, during the four-hour stop.
But most of the large Chinese delegation travelling with him remained at the airport, a Kiribati official said, due to COVID restrictions in the tiny nation which has a population of 120,000 spread over 33 islands.
Wang had come straight from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, which had been the first stop on his tour.
The Solomon Islands recently signed a security pact with China despite objections from Australia, the United States, Japan and New Zealand, which fear it could give China a military presence in the region.
Kiribati was focused on trade and tourism opportunities with China, and wasn't keen on a security arrangement, according to the Kiribati official.
The official said a controversial plan to reopen a protected marine zone for fishing, and to upgrade an airstrip on Canton island, weren't among agreements due to be signed.
Since switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, Kiribati has said it would open one of the world's largest marine conservation zones to fishing, the 400,000 square kilometre Phoenix Islands Protected Area.
Kiribati lawmakers told Reuters last year it would also consider a Chinese plan to upgrade a disused World War Two airstrip, which Western critics said would offer Beijing a foothold about 3,000km southwest of the US state of Hawaii. Kiribati said it would be a non-military project designed to bolster tourism.
The Kiribati government said it would release details of the visit after the Chinese delegation had departed.
Wang will host a meeting of Pacific foreign ministers in Fiji next week, where China will seek agreement on a sweeping trade, fisheries and security pact.
A draft communique and five-year action plan sent by China to 10 Pacific islands ahead of the meeting has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, Federated States of Micronesia.
China and Australia's top diplomats are on competing visits to the Pacific islands.
Australia's foreign minister Penny Wong is in Fiji and due to meet Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on Friday, saying her visit days after being sworn in, shows the priority the new government wants to give the Pacific and climate change.
Fiji on Friday joined US President Joe Biden's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework making it the first Pacific Island country in the plan that is part of a US effort to push back on China's growing regional influence.
Senator Wong warned there were regional consequences to the Solomon Islands' security pact with China, after her Chinese counterpart said interference in the deal would fail and China's relations with Honiara were a model for the region.