The photo of the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of schoolboys caused a storm on social media earlier this month. Some saw it as a symbol of China’s sinister intentions in the Pacific and others argued it reflected local customs which should be respected.
The Chinese foreign ministry said in its defence,
We fully respect local customs and culture when interacting with the Pacific countries. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Let’s set aside the argument over the incident itself. I’d just note in passing there were several occasions when, as a senior Australian representative in the region, I had to quietly back away from ceremonies where my involvement could have sent the wrong signal.
The foreign ministry’s statement raises a more important point. As a genuine regional partner, it’s not enough for China to “do as the Romans do”. Those who aspire to a meaningful partnership with the Pacific also need to be clear about what they stand for themselves.