China’s Wang Yi fails to seal Pacific Islands deal, but bolsters Beijing’s influence

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-day, eight-country tour of the South Pacific failed to materialize Beijing’s desired multilateral pact on security and development. But there are few signs that the setback has dampened China’s resolve to expand its influence in the strategically important region.

Analysts see China’s increased engagement – and the response of traditional powers – as shaping up to be an endless struggle for diplomatic influence, in which Pacific island states could benefit from increased economic engagement. , but could also suffer from military posture instability.

After China struck a groundbreaking security deal with the Solomon Islands in April, despite frantic diplomacy and opposition from the United States and Australia, Wang began his regional tour with apparent confidence that China could integrate as a regional security actor with a similar agreement to be signed jointly by 10 Pacific island states.

China pushes Pacific deal, as Australia scrambles to mend regional ties

As Wang departed, a leaked draft of the proposed statement raised concerns about its sweeping provisions going well beyond development aid and economic ties into policing, cybersecurity and ocean mapping. Asked if the deal should be signed, China’s foreign ministry told reporters in Beijing that the tour was starting to “stay tuned”.

But instead of repeating the Solomons security pact diplomatic stunt, China’s proposal was dropped at a meeting of 10-nation foreign ministers and Wang in Fiji on Monday, after some countries questioned whether the deal would trigger greater confrontation between China and Western nations. In the region.

However, China’s anger is unlikely to slow its long-term vision of building consensus among Beijing-friendly countries in the South Pacific.

“It’s too early to say that China backed out of this deal because of this setback,” said Denghua Zhang, a researcher at the Australian National University. The shelved initial deal will likely trigger further bilateral lobbying. “[China] won’t give up easily.

The leak of a bilateral security agreement with the Solomon Islands in March was a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for other Pacific island governments, giving them two months to consider the impact of a regional deal, according to Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“The big takeaway from Beijing’s establishment of such a regional security pact is that it is now an open statement of ambition for China to play a leadership role. direct security in small Pacific states and in the South Pacific,” he said.

Even though the regional pact failed, China has entered into a number of bilateral agreements with Pacific island countries, Shoebridge added. “While we’ve all been distracted by this 10-nation regional security pact, the backlash from Wang’s visit has been further bilateral progress to financially and economically entangle these small Pacific states and then transition them into a security presence. .”

In response, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and their allies have stepped up engagement with regional leaders to prevent additional deals from giving China a military foothold near Australia and US territory. and the key Guam military base.

On Tuesday, President Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a joint statement that a “persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values ​​or security interests would fundamentally shift the strategic balance. of the region”.

Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister, visited Fiji days before Wang’s arrival, where she promised to strengthen Canberra’s commitment to the Pacific islands and do more to counter the threat “existential” that climate change represents.

Island leaders have been sensitive to the possibility that new superpower competition could be a problem. David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, which receives financial and military support from the United States under a covenant of free association, said in a letter that the agreement threatened a “new cold war and called it “the most groundbreaking deal”. proposed deal in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.

Writing on Twitter after the meeting, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that the Pacific needed “authentic partners, not superpowers that are super focused on power”.

China’s push for influence in the South Pacific comes at a time when its traditional approach of “no strings attached” development aid is increasingly tied to a geopolitical and security agenda.

In the 1990s, China’s main goal in the South Pacific was to get rid of diplomatic partners in Taiwan, the island democracy that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its territory. In September 2019, the Solomon Islands became the latest Pacific island country to switch relations from Taipei to Beijing.

This effort continues and about a third of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners are in the region. Last week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry warned Pacific island nations to recognize China’s military “adventurism”, adding that the security deal with Solomon was a clear example of how the actions of Beijing escalated tensions.

China champions its intensified engagement with the region as a natural consequence of its growing role in international trade and development. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched in 2014, and China recently announced a global security-focused initiative.

Hu Zhenyu, a senior fellow at the China Development Institute, says China’s approach is fundamentally different from the military alliances pursued by the United States and its allies, and the pressure on Australia comes mainly from China’s ability to provide cheap infrastructure. “At this time, China does not need to build a military base on the Pacific Islands,” he said in an interview.

But more recently, Chinese thinkers have pointed to the security implications of building a presence in the South Pacific, explaining how new partnerships could undermine the “island chain strategy” intended to contain China. Beijing has long resented what it sees as a military stranglehold by the United States and its allies preventing its dominance of the region.

Su Xiaohui, deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank under the Foreign Ministry, told state media that Wang’s visit, as Biden sought to strengthen alliances, shattered US containment efforts, leaving Japan, Australia and other US allies scrambling.

America and Australia “are not sincerely trying to help island development but are using nations for their own means,” Su said. “It’s very clear who is trying to control and who is trying to cooperate.”

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei and Michael Miller in Sydney contributed to this report.


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