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Stormy seas in the South Pacific
China seeks to counterbalance the West's influence in the South Pacific region.
A little over a month after the Solomon Islands and China finalised a security agreement (the details of which were leaked earlier in March, causing quite a stir amongst Australia, New Zealand, and the US), Foreign Minister Wang Yi began a whirlwind eight-nation tour of the South Pacific on 26 May. Starting with the Solomon Islands, Wang is slated to also visit East Timor, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, and Vanuatu and hold virtual talks with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Cook Islands, and Niue.
The South Pacific has quickly joined the list of geographies where China is in a direct contest over the establishment of influence with the West. As neighbouring countries, for decades, the South Pacific has been a zone of immediate development cooperation for Australia and New Zealand. However, like many other parts of the world where Beijing has expanded its footprints—for instance, countries in Africa, Sri Lanka, etc.—the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) have become a fresh geography of tension between the US and China.
"Starting with the Solomon Islands, Wang is slated to also visit East Timor, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, and Vanuatu and hold virtual talks with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Cook Islands, and Niue."
The implications of the security agreement signed in April between China and the Solomon Islands are quite broad ranging—from the maintenance of social order and the protection of lives and property to humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and strengthening of the internal security capacity of the Solomon Islands. The expansive scope of the agreement undoubtedly creates room for anxiety as they can be easily invoked for the intervention and perhaps even stationing of Chinese security forces on the island. Earlier instances when China used similar methods to gradually realise similar apprehensions as in the case of Djibouti are not lost on Washington, Canberra, and Wellington. Wang’s recent visit has been accompanied to get all 10 PICs to back and subscribe to an all-encompassing agreement that covers everything from the running of internet networks to security cooperation to a marine plan for fisheries. Such an agreement would grant China near-absolute control in what Beijing has termed a “Common Development Vision” for the region per a draft communique and a five-year action plan that the country shared with the PICs before Wang’s visit. Interestingly, media houses in Honiara protested against Wang’s visit as only pre-selected media agencies were allowed to attend the event
China has vehemently stressed that the PICs are not the backyard of any other country and that the latter’s need to diversify cooperation with other countries should be recognised. Prima fe, both strands of reasoning hold true. However, the problem, as is always and very frequently the case with China, is that ‘common visions’; ‘benefit for all’; ‘win-win situation,’ and other similar tags are always formulated to be skewed in Beijing’s favour. In the case of the sweeping plan for the South Pacific as well, the aim is to develop the region on China’s terms and for China’s benefit.
"Wang’s recent visit has been accompanied to get all 10 PICs to back and subscribe to an all-encompassing agreement that covers everything from the running of internet networks to security cooperation to a marine plan for fisheries."
The Solomon Islands have already stepped into the quagmire, but for other countries in the region to remain free from China’s stronghold, Australia, New Zealand, and the US must step up their presence and partnerships with the countries. To a large extent, the PICs have been almost taken for granted by the latter with efforts being renewed in recent years only when the Chinese threat to the region became imminent. Countries like Micronesia and others have already publicly stated that they will not endorse the plan with the country’s President stating that the plan would draw the PICs “very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them.” However, knee-jerk responses such as the immediate sending of Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Fiji are bound to be relegated to mere tokenism in the absence of constructive engagement.
For now, ten PICs have reportedly rejected China’s plan and its push for a sweeping security agreement, and there exists quite a degree of misgivings regarding China’s ambitions amongst the island nations. Whilst this will offer some respite to the US, Australia, and New Zealand, it will be but momentary. The PICs are already extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change and much needs to be done to address issues such as rising sea levels alongside economic challenges and are therefore keen to circumvent the geopolitical tussle between the West and China. And it must be remembered that China is quick to act, has deep pockets, and is more than willing to fill any perceived void as far as international cooperation is concerned. The PICs must, therefore, be assured that the aid, support, and cooperation that is offered and committed by Canberra and Wellington in particular (given their geographical proximity), are not the upshot of Beijing’s entry into the region but rather a sustained demonstration of a genuine interest in investing in the region’s advancement.
Pratnashree Basu (ORF)
21 June 2022