China fails to persuade South Pacific countries for a comprehensive pact but wins small

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has failed to persuade South Pacific countries to support a large-scale new agreement proposed by Beijing, covering areas from security to fisheries, but achieved smaller victories during his tour of the region, the Associated Press reported. 

He co-chaired a meeting with Pacific island nations’ foreign ministers on May 26 during his visit to Suva Van. At an unusual press conference after the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister and Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama spoke for about 30 minutes, then abruptly left the hall while the media tried to ask questions. Many details of what happened at the meeting went unanswered, but it is clear that the countries in the region did not support the Chinese plan.

Frank Bainimarama said it would always increase geopolitical tensions and threaten regional stability. According to him, Beijing’s proposal would lead to the largest changes in the Pacific region so far. The agreement “threatens to lead to a new Cold War at best, and even a World War at worst.” 

At today’s press conference, Wang pointed out some areas on which the countries have reached a consensus and said he would continue to work on others. China may not have succeeded in its plans for a large-scale, multilateral agreement but is signing smaller bilateral agreements with Pacific countries every day of Wang Yi’s region tour. On Friday, he signed ten agreements with Kiribati, ranging from cooperation in various sectors of the economy to build a bridge.

The Chinese offer

China is seeking an agreement on a wide range of issues with the Pacific region countries; as a result, its influence in the region will be greatly strengthened.

China presents itself as a “large developing country” that stands alongside small and medium-sized nations. Ahead of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message, saying his country would be “a kind brother” to the region and that they shared a “common destiny”, according to Chinese state television CCTV. 

The deal provides for a much closer relationship between Beijing and the Pacific region in areas such as the economy, investment, security, health care, tourism and cultural exchange. At the same time, in exchange for the assistance provided, China asks for greater access to natural resources.

The agreement was to be discussed by the leaders of the countries of the Pacific region and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who went on a “marathon” in the area, visiting eight countries in 10 days. China hoped ten countries would sign the agreement during the foreign ministers’ meeting in Fiji. 

The agreement proposed by China confirmed China’s commitment to plans to double the volume of bilateral trade by 2025 compared to 2018. In addition, Beijing is pledged an additional $2 million to Pacific island nations to help fight covid and send 200 Chinese medical workers to Pacific countries over the next five years. China is also offered 2,500 government scholarships to the region and would send 5-10 art groups to the islands after the COVID-19 measures are eased. A key focus of the proposed deal is China’s involvement in security in the Pacific.

China’s proposal to jointly draw up a “marine space plan” and participate in the vital task of compiling nautical charts and a request to allow China to gain greater access to natural resources raised many eyebrows worldwide. China dominates the resource extraction industries in the Pacific region. Last year, a major investigation by The Guardian found that China received more than half of the region’s total seafood, timber and minerals exports in 2019, worth $3.3 billion.

Fears of the cold war in the region

On May 25, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China’s development of cooperation with the island states of the South Pacific “will not lead to the start of a new cold war in the region.” At the same time, Wang Wenbin evaded a direct answer to the question of China’s possible plans to conclude a new agreement, affecting, in particular, security issues with the countries of the South Pacific region.

On May 26, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a joint press conference with the Solomon Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Jeremy Manele in Honiara that China has no intention of building a military base on the island nation.

“The cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands in the field of security is open and not directed against third parties, (China) has no intention of building a military base,” Wang Yi was quoted as saying by the official website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

South Pacific countries stand divided

After the meeting, the leaders made more moderate statements, saying they did not accept Beijing’s proposed “common development vision” due to the lack of regional consensus. “As always, we favoured consensus,” said the co-organizer of this summit, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, after the meeting. Papua New Guinea, Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia are among the countries that are concerned about these proposals, as well as Palau, which diplomatically recognizes Taiwan and was not invited to this meeting. “We prefer to deal with our own security issues with China,” said Papua New Guinean Foreign Minister Soroi Eoe to AFP, saying he was worried about a regional pact.

Beijing – Washington rivalry

The small independent states of the South Pacific, scattered over thousands of islands, represent less than 9 million inhabitants. But they are located in the heart of an area that Beijing, which seeks to extend its influence worldwide, considers strategic. 

For months, the South Pacific has become a theatre of intense rivalry between China and the United States, the leading power in the region for several decades. Washington is seeking to strengthen its alliances against China by reviving the Quad, a security alliance with Australia, Japan, and India.

Notwithstanding the rebuff, China continues to pursue the Island nations. On May 30, Chinese President Xi again addressed the South Pacific islands saying “No matter how the international situation changes, China has always been a good friend of like-minded Pacific island countries, a good brother standing together through thick and thin, and a good partner moving forward side by side.”

 The China-Pacific Island Foreign Ministers’ Meeting mechanism was officially established in October 2021.


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