On Monday, ten Pacific island states rejected China’s proposal for a broad regional security treaty, citing concerns that the idea was intended to draw them into Beijing’s circle.
In a high-profile diplomatic loss for Beijing, talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and leaders of the tiny island nations in Fiji failed to achieve an accord.
China has offered to dramatically increase its activity in the South Pacific, thereby threatening the US and its allies’ dominance in the strategically important region.
Beijing would train Pacific island police, become engaged in cybersecurity, strengthen political connections, perform sensitive maritime mapping, and acquire more access to natural resources on land and in the ocean under the proposed accord.
Beijing is enticing them with millions of dollars in financial aid, the chance of a potentially profitable China-Pacific islands free trade pact, and access to China’s massive 1.4 billion-person market.
Behind the scenes, Pacific leaders have expressed serious reservations about the proposal.
In a recent letter to fellow leaders, David Panuelo, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, warned the offer was “disingenuous” and would “ensure Chinese influence in government” and “economic control” of key industries.
A more soft-spoken public rebuke came after the talks, when leaders said they could not agree to Beijing’s proposed “Common Development Vision” due to a lack of regional consensus.
“As always, we put consensus first,” co-host and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said after the meeting, indicating that broad accord would be needed before inking any “new regional agreements”.
Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and the Federated States of Micronesia, as well as Taiwan-recognizing Palau, were among those stated to be concerned about the suggestions.
“We would rather deal with our own security issues with China,” Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Soroi Eoe told AFP, indicating concern about any region-wide pact.
Chinese officials — working frantically to secure support during Wang’s 10-day diplomatic blitz of the region — admitted their entreaties had fallen short.
“There has been general support from the 10 countries,” Chinese ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo told reporters in Suva. “But of course, there are some concerns on some specific issues and we have agreed that these two documents will be discussed afterwards until we have reached an agreement.”
Wang said from Suva that the ten nations had reached an agreement on memorandums of understanding on China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan.
The two sides will “continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus on cooperation”, he said, urging those worried by Beijing’s intentions not to be “too anxious and don’t be too nervous”.
The whole plan has not been made public, but it was leaked to the press, including AFP, before of the meeting on Monday.
In the next weeks, China plans to produce a “position paper” presenting the ideas to the public.
The US State Department warned South Pacific states to be careful of “shadowy, imprecise arrangements with minimal transparency” as a response to China’s expansion into the area.
Australia has joined the US in opposing China’s aspirations to extend its security reach far into the area, with Australia’s new foreign minister warning of the “consequences” of such agreements.
Many in the Pacific are uncomfortable about being dragged into a geopolitical squabble between China and US allies.
Most governments want to keep good relations with China, managing relations between Beijing, Washington, Canberra, and Wellington while concentrating on the more pressing problem of climate change and day-to-day economic difficulties.
Bainimarama slammed people who indulge in “geopolitical point-scoring” at a joint appearance with Wang.
It “means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job has been lost to a pandemic or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities”, he said.
All but a few of the Pacific Islands are low-lying and deeply vulnerable to sea-level rises caused by climate change.