Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is touring the South Pacific this week with a 20-member delegation to demonstrate Beijing’s growing military and diplomatic presence in the region.
The United States is a traditional great power in the region, but China is seeking to enter it, especially through the Solomon Islands, a country less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia. Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, visited Fiji less than a week after her Labor party won national elections.
The following is an overview of Wang’s tour and the likely results.
WHERE DOES WANG GO?
Wang is expected to visit the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor during his 10-day tour.
The visits underscore China’s aspirations to establish itself in a region that has traditionally maintained close ties with Beijing’s main rivals, including the United States and Australia. China is also fighting for influence over Taiwan. The PRC considers the self-governing island its territory and opposes foreign relations that treat Taiwan as autonomous and independent, but four countries in the South Pacific are among the declining number of Taipei’s official diplomatic allies.
A stronger Chinese presence in the South Pacific could allow ships of its navy to visit ports there and possibly deploy staff and equipment at a base in the region. This would complicate the US defense strategy, especially concerning plans to deter any possible Chinese move to conquer Taiwan, involving Japan and other allies.
WHAT IS BEHIND THE NEW DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS?
Under Xi Jinping, China has expanded its economic and diplomatic power abroad through the One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to connect East Asia with Europe and beyond through ports, railways, power plants, and other infrastructure.
The results are mixed – countries that are China’s main customers in the initiative, such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, have been heavily indebted, and developed countries have cited their national security as an argument for banning government-backed Chinese companies, including the telecommunications giant Huawei. However, the South Pacific region remains relatively open to Chinese efforts at a low cost and potentially high profit.
China has generally stayed away from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its top leaders have not left the country for more than two years amid austerity measures and deteriorating ties with the United States, Canada, and the EU. Given Xi’s bid to secure a third five-year term at the helm of the ruling Communist Party, a foreign policy victory would help him consolidate his power and repel criticism of his rule over the pandemic and its economic cost.
WHAT IS THE CONTENT OF THE PACT BETWEEN CHINA AND THE SOLOMON ISLANDS?
The agreement could allow China to send security forces to the Solomon Islands at the request of their government for a peacekeeping mission. It will also allow ships in the Chinese navy to visit ports to replenish supplies and provide recreation for seafarers, which could lead to a permanent presence on the islands.
The United States has said it will take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands if the agreement with China poses a threat to the interests of the United States or its allies.
WHAT IS AUSTRALIA’S MAIN DANGER?
In addition to concerns over China’s expansion into the vast Pacific, Australia’s new government has called on Beijing to lift trade sanctions if it wants to restore bilateral relations.
The Chinese prime minister’s congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the occasion of his election victory was widely seen as easing Beijing’s two-year ban on high-level intergovernmental contacts with Australia. Premier Li Keqiang said China was ready to work with Australia to improve ties, which had collapsed after Australia passed a law against Chinese influence in its elections and political discourse.
In response, China has created many formal and informal trade barriers for billions of dollars worth of Australian exports in recent years, including coal, wine, barley, beef, and seafood.
WHAT OTHER PLANS DOES CHINA HAVE IN THE REGION?
According to a draft agreement received from the Associated Press, China wants 10 countries in the Pacific to conclude an agreement with it, which addresses all issues, from security to fisheries.
The project shows that China wants to expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly develop a fisheries plan, strengthen cooperation in the operation of Internet networks in the region, and establish cultural Confucius Institutes and schools.
Wang hopes the parties will support the draft agreement as part of a joint communiqué after Fiji’s May 30 meeting with other foreign ministers.
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