China’s Pacific Island Hopping Reveals a New Geopolitical Frontline

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TOKYO — China is not trying to militarize Pacific nations, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

Wang called it “fake news” on the final leg of his trip to seven countries in the region.

But President Xi Jinping said something similar about the South China Sea when he visited the White House in September 2015. Speaking alongside then-President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden, the Chinese leader said: “The relevant construction activities that China [is] companies in the Nansha Islands (Spratleys) do not target or affect any country, and China has no intention of further militarization. China’s construction of runways and infrastructure since then has proven otherwise.

While Wang insisted that China came to the South Pacific to build roads and bridges and improve people’s lives, not to deploy troops or establish military bases, observers took his protests with a grain of salt.

Wang’s long journey – which took him to the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea – instead highlighted Beijing’s growing ambitions in the region. It also stopped in East Timor after the seven nations of the Pacific. The fact that Wang embarked on the trip right after US President Joe Biden’s first visit to Asia showed that Beijing sees the small Pacific islands as the front line in great power competition with the United States.

In Asia, Biden discussed with his counterparts in Japan, India and Australia a new maritime initiative for the region. Biden also announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which observers say excludes China from strategic areas of Washington’s cooperation, such as the environment and digital trade.

Wang failed to strike a regional economic and security deal with Pacific countries, but his trip left lessons for countries like Australia, Japan and ASEAN member states, according to analysts.

China has been a dialogue partner of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a regional mechanism, since 1990. But its recent and intense engagement with the region has caught the world’s attention, especially after China entered into a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April, raising concerns about Beijing’s potential future use of the island state as a military base.

“Wang’s trip was unprecedented and truly challenged the relationship that Pacific states have with [their] traditional partners, perhaps illustrating the importance of the Pacific to its geopolitical aspirations,” Henry Ivarature, a Pacific Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, told Nikkei Asia.

Wang’s visit, he said, “has intensified the race for traditional Pacific partners as preferred partners of choice in aid relations and political interests.”

Wang and his counterparts from Pacific countries discussed in Fiji a regional trade and security agreement, which has not been signed.

However, China has obtained some agreements. In Kiribati, for example, China has signed cooperation documents on disaster prevention and infrastructure, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Along with Samoa, China has also signed cooperation documents on economy and technology. China and Pacific island countries have concluded 52 bilateral cooperation agreements, covering 15 areas including the Belt and Road and climate change, Wang said Friday.

Moreover, Wang’s trip showed China’s existing footprint in the region: the meeting between Wang and the leaders of Vanuatu, for example, was held at a Chinese-funded convention center.

“Even though China failed to secure a multilateral agreement, it has won a series of bilateral agreements, and some Pacific states have benefited and will benefit from its largesse. It will build on these agreements,” said Ivarature.

Indeed, Wang’s trip prompted apparent countermeasures from other countries. Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, visited Fiji, Tonga and Samoa days after taking office to bolster Canberra’s regional influence. The White House announced Fiji’s participation in IPEF, the first Pacific island nation to do so.

Ivarature stressed that the lesson for Australia from Wang’s trip is “not to take for granted its traditional and historic relationship with the Pacific, and its development challenges, particularly climate change”.

“The Pacific will of course exercise its agency to maximize benefits knowing full well that it is ‘courted’ by global economic powers,” he said. “I think Australia might need to have a real reflection on its role in the region, to review its relationship with the Pacific and to work strategically to maintain its position in the region because China is forging its way aggressively in an area she considers her own.'”

Sharon Seah, a senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank in Singapore, said China’s attempts to strike a regional trade and security deal with the Pacific would continue.

“Although this agreement has been temporarily suspended after Wang Yi’s visit, I believe that China will continue to talk to Pacific nations, both individually and collectively,” she said.

Scaffolding is erected at a construction site near the Chinese embassy in Suva on May 27. China says it is in the region to build infrastructure, not military bases. © AP

For ASEAN, the potential opening of a “third theater of rivalry”, after the South China Sea and the Mekong region, is worrying, she said, because the changing geopolitical balance is a source of uncertainty and fear for countries that are caught between the United States and its allies on one side and China on the other.

“ASEAN has been a stabilizing factor for many Southeast Asian countries over the past 55 years. [since its founding in 1967]. It has created a form of lasting peace that is increasingly taken for granted. This peace that has been forged through trials and tribulations is increasingly under threat from forces outside this region, testing ASEAN’s unity, centrality and relevance.”

Seah suggested that ASEAN could increase its engagement with the PIF. Currently, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore are the dialogue partners of the forum. “As key regional groupings in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, increased cooperation and interaction between ASEAN and the FIP should be encouraged. Such cooperation can help bring stability to both regions,” he said. she declared.

Yongwook Ryu, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, pointed out that “Wang’s visit to Pacific countries demonstrates Beijing’s intention to target small weak states in the region. to be on China’s side, or at least not to join the American side.”

“ASEAN member states should exercise more caution in preserving their national autonomy and sovereignty, and not get bogged down in escalating US-China strategic rivalry,” he said. he declares.

Ryu said the best thing ASEAN can do to help itself is to consolidate ASEAN’s internal unity and keep its house in order. “He should focus more on his own problems and deal with them, because internal cracks and weaknesses will make ASEAN more vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers.”

Regarding Japan, Ryu stressed that its goal should be to provide “quality development aid”. He suggested that Japan work with other middle powers in the region, such as South Korea and Australia, to provide development aid and launch infrastructure projects. He noted that it would be difficult for Japan alone to counter Beijing’s attempt to expand its influence.

“It would provide a viable alternative for these countries in the region, so that they don’t have to depend on China for their socio-economic development,” Ryu said.

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