Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, started his multi-country journey to the Pacific Island countries (PICs) on May 26th, 2022, and wrapped up his visits on June 3rd, 2022. His itinerary covered several island countries in the Pacific region including the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timur.
The Global Times quoted observers hailing the visit as a “miraculous trip” that provided a timely answer to each PICs’ individual needs, increased the scope of cooperation and ushered a broader future for both bilateral and multilateral relations for China in the region”. Wang Yi carried out “cloud visits” and virtual connections with 17 leaders of PICs and more than 30 ministerial officials and co-chaired the second China-Pacific Island countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Suva, Fiji. However, China’s agenda and grand design to increase its sphere of influence among the small pacific islands was fulfilled only partially as its proposed comprehensive, multilateral security and economic cooperation agreement fell through. The Pacific Islands Forum in a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister Yi declined to sign up to the sweeping regional economic and security deal proposed by China.
As purported by the Chinese Foreign Minister’s spokesperson, the visit was aimed to deepen the friendship and cooperative relationship between China and regional countries, and contribute to peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. However, it could not generate enough trust. Of late, Beijing has been actively pursuing its engagements with those countries, efforts that are part of its aspiration to be a global power by using its deep pockets with an aim to showcase China as a development partner among the developing and least developed PICs.
The PICs look up to China in the expectation that it could promote the livelihood of locals and activate the economic potentials of those islands. China has got vacant space to enhance its footprints in the region due to the focus of Western powers mainly on security cooperation, while these countries continue to face scarcity of resources for development projects. Nevertheless, the PICs are aware that their enhanced engagement with China could spark a local confrontation between China and the West, who perceives Chinese incursions in the region as a threat to regional peace and stability.
Wang hosted meetings with all 10 countries on seemingly “equal footing” and reached 52 cooperation pacts, covering 15 domains including those under the Belt and Road Initiative, climate-change measures, combating Covid-19, green development, health, trade and tourism as stated in a press conference in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the final stop of his PICs tour. The United States, meanwhile, alerted the South Pacific nations to be wary of “shadowy” agreements with China, which has put forth a package to expand cooperation dramatically. Earlier, the US State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, noted that “we are concerned that these reported agreements may be negotiated in a rushed, non-transparent process”. While the Chinese Foreign Minister was mid-way in his PICs visit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also stated that China posed an even more devious, long-term threat than Russia does. According to him, “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.” Blinken then added that “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years. We strongly deplore and reject this.”
The scope of China’s failed proposed agreement with Pacific Island countries was very comprehensive and described as a potential ‘game changer’. It encompassed cooperation in ‘traditional and non-traditional security’, law enforcement and marine sector including fisheries which would include Pacific’s lucrative tuna catch, running internet networks in the region and setting up cultural Confucius institutes and classrooms. China had also in mind exploring the possibility of setting up a free-trade area with the island countries.
Some observers have attributed China’s failure to steer ahead its comprehensive multilateral agreement with the Pacific Island countries to Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s intervention in Fiji just before Wang’s stop over. However, many analysts opine that the rejection of the Chinese deal signals “collective and unequivocal approach” of the Pacific Island countries not allowing themselves to be “used as pawns” in a “geopolitical contest”. In this regard, Fiji Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama was straight, clear and loud – “Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas.” He urged China and Australia to act more decisively on the climate crises. Analysts suspect that a more robust Chinese presence in the South Pacific could enable its naval forces to make port calls and deploy personnel and equipment at bases in the area. That might complicate US defence strategy, particularly over contingency plan on Taiwan.
While Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to PICs failed to deliver on the plan for a grand multi-lateral agreement, it did however succeed in creating a favourable vibe among PICs and mustering support for “one-China principle” and BRI. PNG’s Prime Minister, James Marape, stated that the BRI has brought significant benefits to developing countries including Papua New Guinea and re-affirmed his support for the BRI. The Pacific Island countries are apparently not averse to cooperating with China and other advanced nations for development support, but they are apprehensive about a geopolitical tug of war in the Pacific. David Pannuelo. President of the Federation States of Micronesia, declared that the proposed Chinese agreement threatened a “new cold war” and called it “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.”
The apprehension was also articulated very well by the Fijian Prime Minster on Twitter. The Pacific needs “genuine, partners, not superpowers”, he tweeted. This fear is due to a remarkable shift in China’s strategy from “no strings attached” developmental assistance to developing countries to “dollar diplomacy” increasingly “entwined with a geopolitical and security agenda”.
Although Beijing has continuously refuted the “China threat theory” of other stakeholders in the region, especially Western countries and Australia, the PICs maintained a cautious approach and confined their engagement with China mainly to economic sphere only. Thus, Wang Yi’s visit could achieve little on what could be described as China’s hidden agenda in the South PICs, i.e. promoting China’s core strategic interests in the region under the veil of a comprehensive cooperation agreement.