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The diplomatic battle for the South Pacific

Duelling visits by the Chinese and Australian foreign ministers have focused international attention on the region.

By Katie Stallard

When Xi Jinping met Barack Obama, the US president at the time, in California in June 2013, he gestured towards the Pacific Ocean and noted that China lay just beyond the other side. But that vast ocean, the Chinese president said, “has enough room to accommodate the development of the two great powers in the world, namely China and the United States”.

Nine years later it seems that is no longer the case. Instead, those two powers are locked in an increasingly bitter rivalry, with Western analysts warning that the world is entering a new Cold War. Rather than accommodating their respective interests, that ocean, specifically the South Pacific, is the setting for an intensifying diplomatic battle between China on one side, and the US and its allies on the other.

That contest is best illustrated by the duelling visits by senior Chinese and Australian diplomats to the Pacific island nation of Fiji in recent days, as Beijing seeks to sign a region-wide economic and security pact, and Canberra attempts to thwart that plan. Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, flew to the Fjiian capital, Suva, on 26 May, on only her fourth day in office, underscoring the urgency of her government’s concerns. She was followed by Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, who arrived on 30 May to host a summit with Pacific island foreign ministers as part of an unprecedented ten-day, eight-nation regional tour.

“China has made its intentions clear [but] so too are the intentions of the new Australian government,” Wong said. She positioned her country as a reliable partner “that doesn’t come with strings attached” or impose “unsustainable financial burdens” on other countries, a clear dig at Beijing. She also acknowledged that Australia had a lot of ground to make up in the region after what she has called a “lost decade” in which previous governments failed to take Pacific island nations’ concerns about climate change seriously.

By contrast, Beijing has steadily strengthened its engagement with the region over the last decade, offering large amounts of aid and increasing economic ties. The value of Pacific island nations’ trade (excluding Papua New Guinea) with China overtook that of their trade with Australia in 2013, according to a report by the Brookings Institution in 2020. Imports to and exports from China now make up 46 per cent of all Solomon Islands trade.

The latter is a source of particular concern for the US and its regional partners after the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China in April that will allow Beijing to send its police and security personnel to the country, as well as permitting Chinese naval ships to use island ports. The details of that agreement have not been released to the public, but the increasingly close relationship with China has sparked fears in Washington, and among the Solomon Islands’ traditional security partners, Australia and New Zealand, that China might try to establish a military base there in the future. This would bring Chinese forces to within around 1,600km of the Australian coast and threaten links with the US territory of Guam. The former Australian prime minster Kevin Rudd told ABC Radio that the deal was “one of the most significant security developments that we have seen in decades”.

[See also: No, China is not a winner from the war in Ukraine]

Wang has denied there are any plans to build a naval base, but he added that Pacific island nations should not be viewed as anyone’s “backyard” and that “they all have the right to make their own choices”. He visited the Solomon Islands on 26 May, the same day Wong arrived in Fiji, on the first stop of a tour that will also include Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and a regional foreign ministers’ summit in Fiji.

According to a draft communiqué seen by Reuters, Wang is bringing with him a proposal for a region-wide pact along similar lines to the agreement with the Solomons, which would include co-operation on policing, security and communications technology. Such a deal would give China a much more prominent role in the region.

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There has been some resistance to this idea among Pacific island leaders. The president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, who will hold virtual talks with Wang this week, warned his fellow heads of state that the agreement that would bring them “very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them”. He said it would also threaten regional stability by increasing the chances of conflict between China and Western powers.

It is not just China and Australia that are intensifying their efforts to court regional leaders. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, travelled to Fiji in February, followed by a high-level delegation of US officials that also visited the Solomons and Papua New Guinea in April, where they promised to “intensify engagement in the region”. During his visit to Tokyo on 23 May Joe Biden, the US president, announced a new initiative intended to counter China’s influence across the wider region known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (Ipef). Fiji announced that it would join on 27 May, on the eve of Wang’s arrival, although the details of how Ipef will work in practice are still quite vague.

The irony of this sudden surge of diplomatic interest in the South Pacific is that regional leaders have been trying to get the attention of the world’s major powers for many years. They want to talk about the imminent and existential threat that climate change poses to their nations, however, rather than to be viewed as chess pieces in a new great game. Perhaps, at the very least, some of those concerns will be heard by the various foreign ministers who are now jetting in. What is clear is that as the contest between China and the US becomes increasingly global in scope and zero-sum in nature, there is no longer any ocean that is large enough to accommodate both of their interests comfortably.

[See also: How China is rewriting history]
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