IIt was the week that everything changed. For years, security analysts and politicians have warned of China’s rise in the Pacific. Officials representing Beijing have worked slowly and, for the most part, quietly in the small island nations that dot the vast Pacific Ocean – cementing allies, funding infrastructure projects, conducting concerted person-to-person diplomacy.
But this week, Beijing picked up the pace.
The leak of a sweeping economic and security pact has revealed that China hopes to sign 10 Pacific nations in a deal that could fundamentally shift the balance of power in a region that spans almost a third of the globe. Today, Pacific nations face a choice that will shape the region for decades to come.
It all started with the announcement that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi would embark on an “extraordinary and unprecedented” journey around the Pacific from May 26 to June 4, crossing eight countries in 10 days. Wang landed in the Solomon Islands on Thursday, before heading to Kiribati and Samoa on Friday; Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste will follow next week.
Some of the countries Wang visits – such as Kiribati – have been among the most difficult to visit throughout the pandemic, as Pacific island countries, fearing the ravages of Covid on fragile health systems, have imposed some of the closures of strictest borders in the world. world and are still closed to visitors.
“For them to be able to do this is quite an achievement,” said Dr George Carter, a research fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, saying the visit “surpassed any other diplomacy, in terms of perspective, over the past two years.
“For a foreign minister to go to a country like Kiribati which is still under international lockdown, for a foreign minister to meet Fiamē [Naomi Mataʻafa, the new prime minister of Samoa]who has not met Australian or New Zealand ministers or leaders as prime minister, sends big signals.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said the trip was an “extraordinary and unprecedented marathon that will leave many people in the west nervous. It’s not just about what the trip signals for China’s post-Covid re-engagement with the region, but what kind of deals it will sign with its counterparts along the way.”
Wang’s first stop was the Solomon Islands, which signed a controversial security deal with China last month, stoking the worst fears of Canberra and Washington, which have long been looking for signs that China could establish a base. military in the Pacific Islands.
The China-Solomon Islands pact, which has not been made public, but a draft of which has been leaked online, appears to authorize such a base, allowing China to “visit ships, carry out logistical resupply and to stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands,” although Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare denied that such a base was being considered.
“That’s the biggest concern of this deal for Australia,” James Batley, the former Australian high commissioner to the Solomon Islands, told The Guardian last month. “For Australia, it’s potentially a strategic nightmare, but it’s also…a concern for other Pacific islands for the same reason.”
But the Solomons-China deal was just the beginning. Shortly after news broke of Wang’s grand tour of the Pacific, news of the proposed region-wide security agreement arrived.
The deal – proposed between China and 10 Pacific nations – covers everything from a free trade zone with the region, to providing humanitarian and Covid relief, to sending art troupes to the islands. But of most concern is the vision it is establishing of a much closer relationship on security issues, with China proposing that it be involved in police training, cybersecurity, sensitive nautical charting and gaining better access to natural resources.
It would mean a significant shift in the regional security order and put Pacific island countries firmly at the center of the geopolitical standoff between China and the United States and its allies.
“[China] slowly increased its diplomatic and economic engagement in the Pacific,” Carter said. “But now with the Solomon Islands, it has opened the door to another possibility in terms of engaging with China.” Once the door was opened, Carter said, China’s transition from economic and development partner to security actor in the region happened “in a very quick and rapid manner.”
Traditional partners jostle
The proposed regional deal sent the west tumbling. Australia’s new foreign minister, less than a week after taking office after last weekend’s federal election, visited Fiji to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to the Pacific.
“What we are urging as Australia is to look at where a nation might want to be in three, five or 10 years,” Penny Wong said when asked about the proposed deal. China.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is currently on a tour of the United States, said: “We are very confident that we have the means and the capability in the Pacific to respond to all the security challenges that exist and the New Zealand is willing to do that.”
In a move that has been touted as significant, it was announced on Friday that Fiji would join Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the first Pacific island nation to do so, as the United States seeks to strengthen alliances with Pacific nations. .
But the real question comes next week when Wang will host a meeting of his Pacific counterparts at a summit in Suva and urge them to sign the accord. Some Pacific leaders have signaled their willingness to consider Wang’s proposal, while a senior diplomat told the Guardian that some leaders have “great concerns”.
Despite this, “there has been a void left in this region by traditional partners – they have to work very hard to win back the hearts of Pacific people,” they said.
Experts believe that some countries could definitely be influenced by the Chinese deal.
Dr Anna Powles, senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said the deal would mean “a significant loss of strategic autonomy for Pacific nations and for this reason there is little likely that Beijing will succeed”.
“That, however, does not prevent some Pacific states from pursuing bilateral versions of the arrangement. We will soon learn how effective Beijing’s diplomacy in the Pacific is.