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China fails on Pacific pact, but still seeks to boost regional influence

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, alongside Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, attends a meeting with foreign ministers from the Pacific islands on May 30 in Suva, Fiji. (Leon Lord/Fiji Sun/AP)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s eight-country, 10-day tour of the South Pacific failed to deliver Beijing’s desired multilateral pact on security and development. But there are few signs the setback has damped China’s determination to expand its influence in the strategically important region.

Analysts view the intensifying engagement from China — and the response from the traditional powers — as shaping up to be a drawn-out tussle for diplomatic influence, in which the Pacific island states may gain from greater economic engagement but could also suffer from the instability of military posturing.

After China in April secured a groundbreaking security deal with the Solomon Islands, despite frantic diplomacy and opposition from the United States and Australia, Wang embarked on his regional tour with apparent confidence that China could embed itself as a regional security player with a similar agreement to be jointly signed by 10 Pacific island nations.

China pushes Pacific deal, as Australia scrambles to repair regional ties

As Wang set off, a leaked draft of the proposed communique raised concern with its sweeping provisions spanning far beyond developmental assistance and economic ties into policing, cybersecurity and ocean mapping. Asked whether the deal was expected to be signed, China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters in Beijing as the tour began to “stay tuned.”

But instead of repeating the diplomatic coup of the Solomons security pact, China’s proposal was shelved on Monday at a meeting of foreign ministers of the 10 nations and Wang in Fiji, after some countries questioned whether the deal would spark greater confrontation between China and Western nations in the region.

The upset for China is unlikely to slow its long-term vision of building a consensus among countries friendly to Beijing in the South Pacific, however.

“It’s too early to say that China has given up on this agreement because of this setback,” said Denghua Zhang, a research fellow at Australian National University. The original deal being shelved will probably spark renewed bilateral lobbying. “[China] will not easily give up on this.”

The leak of a bilateral security agreement with the Solomon Islands in March was a “canary in the coal mine” for other Pacific island governments, giving them two months to consider the impact of a regional agreement, according to Michael Shoebridge from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“The big thing to take away from Beijing putting such a regionwide security pact together is this is now an overt statement of the ambition that China has to play a direct security role within small Pacific states and across the South Pacific,” he said.

Even as the regional pact fell through, China secured a number of bilateral agreements with Pacific island countries, Shoebridge added. “While we’ve all been distracted by this 10-nation regional security pact, the undertow of Wang’s visit has been further progress bilaterally to entangle these small Pacific states financially and economically and then to transfer that into a security presence.”

In response, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and their allies have stepped up engagement with regional leaders to prevent additional deals they fear will give China a military foothold close to Australia and the U.S. territory and key military base of Guam.

On Tuesday, President Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a joint statement that a “persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region.”

Penny Wong, Australia’s newly sworn in foreign minister, visited Fiji just days ahead of Wang’s arrival, where she promised to reinforce Canberra’s commitment to the Pacific islands and to do more to counter the “existential” threat climate change poses.

Island leaders have been sensitive to the possibility that the new superpower competition could be a problem. David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, which is guaranteed U.S. financial and military support under a Compact of Free Association, said in a letter that the agreement threatened a “new Cold War” and called it “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.”

Writing on Twitter after the meeting, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that the Pacific needed “genuine partners, not superpowers that are super-focussed on power.”

China’s push for influence in the South Pacific comes at a time when its traditional approach of “no strings attached” developmental assistance is increasingly entwined with a geopolitical and security agenda.

In the 1990s, China’s primary focus in the South Pacific was to peel away diplomatic partners of Taiwan, the island democracy that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its territory. In September 2019, the Solomon Islands became the latest Pacific island country to switch relations from Taipei to Beijing.

That effort continues and about a third of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners are in the region. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry last week warned Pacific island nations to recognize China’s military “adventurism,” adding that the Solomon security deal was a clear example of how Beijing’s actions were intensifying tension.

China defends its intensified engagement with the region as a natural offshoot of its growing role in international trade and development. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2014, and China recently announced a globe-spanning initiative focused on security.

Hu Zhenyu, senior research fellow at the China Development Institute, argues that China’s approach is fundamentally different from the military alliances pursued by the United States and its allies, and the pressure on Australia mostly comes from China’s ability to offer cheap infrastructure. “At this period China has no need to build a military base on the Pacific islands,” he said in an interview.

But more recently, Chinese thinkers have emphasized the security implications of building a presence in the South Pacific, speaking of how new partnerships could undermine the “island chain strategy” meant to contain China. Beijing has long chafed against what it sees as a military stranglehold by the United States and its allies preventing its dominance of the region.

Su Xiaohui, deputy director of the Chinese Institute of International Studies, a think tank under the Foreign Ministry, told state media that Wang’s visit, coming as Biden sought to strengthen alliances, had broken through U.S. containment efforts, leaving Japan, Australia and other U.S. allies scrambling.

America and Australia “are not sincerely trying to help the islands‘ development but are using the nations for their own means,” Su said. “It’s very clear who is trying to control and who is trying to cooperate.”

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Michael Miller in Sydney contributed to this report.