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Ohen Beijing’s new ambassador said in a conciliatory moment that he hoped China and Australia could meet “halfway” to mend ties, few suspected it might mean their foreign ministers met in the Pacific.

But Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister, and Wang Yi, her veteran Chinese counterpart, will do almost exactly that, as they both embarked on competing diplomatic trips to island nations this week.

In Wang’s case, he plans to visit, mostly in person but also virtually, up to eight countries, including Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, where he will sign an already negotiated security agreement.

Wang’s 10-day itinerary is an emphatic statement from Beijing that it intends to establish a foothold in the region, where it has wielded influence for more than a decade.

Senior Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, have visited countries in the Pacific before, but no high-level minister has ever made a trip of this size and duration, and with such overt geopolitical intent.

When you consider the breadth of China’s global interests and the relatively small size of the Pacific nations, it immediately tells you that Beijing has ambitious long-term plans in the region.

Mr. Wang’s trip will be a teachable moment in this regard, as the agreements signed along the way will provide a valuable roadmap of Beijing’s priorities and, to some extent, what the countries themselves themselves are ready to sign.

According to a Reuters report, Wang aims to sign a broad regional pact covering everything from security, police, commerce and data. Such a program will send shivers down Canberra and reinforce the belief that Beijing’s longer-term program is even more ambitious, including the potential placement of military assets.

The timing of Wang’s trip is also given, following Australia’s vocal and unsuccessful objections to the Solomons deal, and an equally high-profile visit to the region in April by senior US officials led by Kurt Campbell, the president of the White House. Tsar of the Indo-Pacific.

Wong leaves for Fiji on Thursday to see Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and deliver a speech at the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional body headquartered in Suva.

Dueling diplomacy in the Pacific should dispel the idea of ​​a China-Australia reset |  Richard McGregor
Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Monday, May 23, 2022. Photo: Fumine Tsutabayashi/AP

The trip was organized quickly to ensure Wong was there before his Chinese counterpart, who will be in the Solomons the same day.

Wong arrives in Fiji with Australia in good standing, largely thanks to the supply of vaccines that enabled the tourism-dependent country to break the Covid lockdown and reopen to overseas travel.

Fiji’s economic officials have also looked to Australia and Japan to boost government bond offerings in recent years, avoiding China, whose loans are more expensive.

Besides the added diplomatic pizzazz of going one-on-one with Wang’s visit, Wong will be able to offer his audience something they’ve long demanded of Australia, serious policy change. climatic.

So where does dueling diplomacy leave Sino-Australian relations?

Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Canberra, has delivered speeches and written comments for newspapers since arriving in Canberra from Indonesia late last year, setting a new positive tone.

“These [commentaries] also fit into a longer register of more optimistic messages from Chinese diplomats in Australia dating back to late 2021,” says Benjamin Herscovitch, a researcher at the Australian National University.

Needless to say, adds Herscovitch, that relatively friendly tone has not been matched by the “wolf warrior” diplomats who command the podium at daily press briefings at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

Difficult to discern the substance of a possible rapprochement with Beijing. China will want a major public concession from Australia, but in the current climate it is nearly impossible to deliver anything while Beijing keeps multiple trade sanctions in place.

While adopting a positive tone, Xiao also said that Beijing expects Australia to be “objective and rational” and to “adopt a positive policy towards China”.

Translated, that means staying silent on issues Beijing considers sensitive, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and human rights issues, which Australia will not.

Pacific diplomacy stresses that, even if both sides temper their rhetoric, regional competition is the name of the game. Admittedly, that is Beijing’s priority, and everything is secondary.

As former Australian prime minister and China pundit Kevin Rudd noted in pre-election comments, Beijing’s stated desire to improve relations with Australia eerily fits with its diplomatic rush in the Pacific.

“I couldn’t have prescribed a worse thing to do than to say, ‘I know what we’re going to do, we’re going to announce or have agreed with our new best buddies in Honiara, this security pact with the Solomon Islands government. Rudd said, “It’s just politically illiterate that the Chinese party apparatus endorsed that as an approach.”

There is no reason for Australia not to relaunch ministerial-level talks with Beijing. Our partners, the United States, Japan and India, all have such channels.

But no one should confuse the resumption of such a dialogue with a reset of bilateral relations. Next week’s diplomatic frenzy in the Pacific should put such notions to rest.

Richard McGregor is a senior researcher at the Lowy Institute

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