China has become involved in the South Pacific in an attempt to entice dozens of island nations into cooperation that will shift the regional balance of power in China’s favour. The Islands think Beijing wants a lot too soon.
After ten days of hopping between diplomatic islands in the South Pacific, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not return home completely empty-handed on Saturday. His “miracle voyage,” as Chinese state media calls his Pacific tour, resulted in 52 bilateral deals with island nations such as Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
Tonga gets Chinese police and natural disaster relief laboratory. Other islands opted for Chinese investment in fishing or customs regulations. But for signing the hastily presented “Vision for Common Development” by Beijing, a Chinese development plan prepared specifically for these island nations, the islands thanked them for that.
neglected by Australia and the United States
Last week, a ready-made five-year plan to connect the strategically located chain of islands more firmly to Beijing suddenly appeared. That should have been signed in Fiji last week. Beijing appears to have been dependent on these island nations that desperately needed a large country to take care of, having long been neglected by traditional partners like Australia and the United States.
The Chinese offer does not come unexpectedly. According to the Australian research center Lowy Institute, the region has already received $1.5 billion in Chinese aid between 2006 and 2017. In 2016, during a visit to Fiji, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited island nations to ride the ‘China’s rapid development train’.
But in the past, Chinese efforts have mainly focused on attracting islands that diplomatically recognize Taiwan to the PRC camp. Now that US President Joe Biden has forged several ever-growing coalitions against China, Beijing appears to want to show in the Pacific that it has mastered this art, too.
Security and free trade
Not only is every island nation good for voting in the United Nations, but Beijing’s friends often vote with China, joining the vision of common development will make island nations dependent on Beijing for their security, employment and Internet connections. The prospect of Chinese police, security forces and naval vessels becoming a household name on the islands has caused an international uproar. The Solomon Islands already signed a far-reaching agreement with Beijing last month, including a security pact that would welcome the Chinese navy and provide the local government with Chinese police and military personnel as needed.
Suspicions of Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the United States center on a Chinese proposal to create a free trade area with ten partners in the South Sea. Such a region could be an opportunity for China to position itself as a “stakeholder in the security” of this region, complete with an increased military presence. This radically changes the balance of power.
Despite their smallness, weakness and remoteness, the leaders of the South Sea islands want to decide with whom to cooperate at their own pace, rather than pushing back the initiatives of others. Especially now that China has unequivocally linked economic cooperation to the “common” (i.e., designed by China) security policy. This is relatively new. Prior to 2012, China in this field was limited to evacuating employees of state-owned enterprises from hot spots on the African continent and participating in international anti-piracy initiatives in the Gulf of Aden. In 2017, the first (and so far only) Chinese naval base became operational in Djibouti.
What does Shi want?
Following Xi Jinping’s international initiatives for global economic development led by China, the Chinese leader recently gave birth to an idea for a global security architecture based on Chinese principles. This plan mainly focuses on developing countries. The new branch of Xi Jinping’s thinking is still in the early stages of ambiguous and stylized language. What Xi wants in practice will only become apparent in implementation, so agreeing with a group of countries in a strategic location was the next logical step.
Exotic wreaths, flags, and a loud closing statement: Everything was ready to take out the vision of common development out into the world, except for the heads of government of the South Pacific nations. Beijing may have overestimated its position, wanting too much too soon without giving the new partners a chance to consult with other countries in the region.
Also, the leaders of the South Seas government fear that the intense interest in their lands by the blocs of competing geopolitical powers is doing nothing to solve their real problems. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told Australia’s ABC that geopolitical scoring doesn’t mean much if your community is below high sea levels, your job is gone due to the pandemic and your family is affected by the rapid rise in commodity prices.
Discussion of cooperation with China has been postponed until next year. Not that the US-led Western pro-democracy bloc can now breathe a sigh of relief, because for China delay never means adaptation. Now that Beijing has set its teeth in the Pacific, it is only a matter of time and patient negotiation to tempt the islands to expand into more controversial cooperation in military affairs and cybersecurity. This failed attempt is just the beginning.