Recently the South Pacific reentered the spotlight with a 10-day visit to the region by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. It included eight Pacific Island countries, or PICs, in Oceania — the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Wang also held virtual meetings with three other nations — Cook Islands, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia — and hosted the second round of the China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting in Fiji.
China’s media hailed it as “a miraculous trip” that provided a timely answer to each PIC’s individual needs, increased the scope of cooperation and ushered in an even broader future for both bilateral and multilateral relations for China in the region. Altogether, China and PICs reached 52 cooperation pacts covering 15 domains, including those under the Belt and Road Initiative, climate change response, the pandemic, green development, health, trade and tourism.
At the same time, voices in the West continues to play up their negative slant regarding China’s intentions in the region and attempt to lock China and the United States into a cold war framework. Wang’s visit, in the eyes of the West, is only the latest illustration of an ongoing trend.
The U.S., Australia and Japan feel most offended. With over-the-top alertness and expressions of heavy concern, they observe the situation mostly from a perspective of geopolitical competition, which can be summarized as follows:
First, they believe China is trying to militarize the Pacific nations through actions disguised as help with development. One Japanese article cited the South China Sea as an example, even though China made it clear in 2015 that it would not pursue militarization. According to the article, “China’s construction of runways and infrastructure since then have proved otherwise.” So while Wang insisted that China had come to the South Pacific to build roads and bridges and to improve people’s lives — not to deploy troops or establish military bases — observers should “take these protestations with a grain of salt,” the article said.
Second, they think Wang’s long trip was a signal of Beijing’s growing regional ambitions. One U.S. author said the fact that Wang embarked on the trip immediately after U.S. President Joe Biden’s first visit to Asia showed that Beijing sees the small islands in the Pacific as the front line in its great power competition with the U.S.
Meanwhile, Australian media warn that China’s growing interest and assertiveness in securing access to maritime resources, coupled with its increased footprint in the Pacific was deemed a significant threat to Canberra’s objective to “prevent unaligned powers from gaining military access to any Pacific islands, which — theoretically — could be used as a forward base to either attack Australia or limit its ability to maneuver.”
A New Zealand article repeated the story that China’s bringing together such a major strategic and aspirational initiative to the Pacific shows a very different and ambitious Chinese strategy of engagement on multiple fronts in the region, with a view toward ultimately becoming a “regional leader.”
Third, while countermeasures have been taken by the U.S. and Australia — such as Australia’s new foreign minister visiting Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to reinforce Canberra’s regional influence, and the announcement by the White House that Fiji would participate in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — it is believed in Western countries that they “should not take for granted” that their traditional and historical relations in the Pacific will automatically prevail. It is widely agreed that the West lacks the investment and other funding levels to compete with China, especially on climate change and development challenges facing the PICs.
Thus, in their opinion, the Pacific Island nations “will, of course, exercise their agency to maximize the benefits with the full knowledge of being courted by global economic powers.” Most Western observers concentrate on the so-called failure of China’s efforts in obtaining “a regionwide economic and security deal with the Pacific nations,” yet they all recognize that the bilateral agreements are solid and that China will continue to promote a multilateral approach.
It can be seen that, facing China’s more proactive diplomacy in the South Pacific, Western countries feel a mixture of anxiety and urgency. On one hand, they worry about China’s expanding influence in the area, which is considered of vital strategic value along the so-called second island chain, which traditionally falls into the hands of Western countries. They deem China’s high-profile presence in the region as a threat to their predominance, especially in the military and security sphere. On the other hand, there is also a lot of self-criticism and reflection on their policy deficiencies.
For example, according to some reasonable voices, China has been able to tap into the fact that PICs want to be heard on climate change, the environment, agricultural development an infrastructure, while Western countries have historically focused less on those things. That explains the deepening frustration of the Pacific countries. Their Western partners, particularly the United States and Australia, have talked about strategic competition with China, but the PICs’ paramount security concerns have been neglected. Therefore, they call for a more urgent and substantial involvement of the West in the region to outcompete China.
Under Biden’s reign, the U.S. has resorted to such tools as alliances, economic and digital cooperation, norm-setting, political and ideological accords, military ties and diplomatic euphemisms to induce third countries to align with it in the cause of countering China. However, as Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said, scoring geopolitical points means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, or whose job has been lost to the pandemic or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities. That’s why the island nations in the Pacific would like to intertwine more closely with China, which treats their immediate needs reasonably, on equal footing and in a dignified manner — unlike Western countries, whose words always speak louder than their actions.