Have China’s Pacific ambitions been thwarted?

By Yvette Tan

China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi has been on a marathon tour across the Pacific Islands – his visit was a sign of Beijing’s willingness to close a sweeping trade and security deal with 10 countries in the region.

The ambitious deal – which covered a wide range of issues, from cybersecurity to a Chinese-funded police training academy and setting up more Chinese cultural links across the Pacific nations – was meant to tie the region much closer to Beijing.

But it was revealed this week that the deal had been shelved after many of the countries declined to sign, expressing concerns over certain aspects of the agreement.

Does this mean Beijing’s Pacific ambitions have been thwarted – at least for now?

A growing interest
China has long had its eye on the Pacific Islands, where it has been steadily growing its trade, aid, diplomatic and commercial activity since 2006. Between then and 2017, Beijing provided close to $1.5bn in foreign aid to the region through a mixture of grants and loans, according to the Lowy Institute.

Experts say various factors drive China’s interest.

“Historically, in times of conflict, the Pacific has been geographically significant because of the ability to control supply and access,” says Mihai Sora, an analyst at the Lowy Institute.

“Winning influence in the Pacific [also] means you have a region bloc that may be more sympathetic to your position on issues that are decided in international spaces, like UN votes.”

Mr Sora adds that China’s ambitions in the Pacific Islands are also part of a “long-term campaign to diminish international diplomatic support for Taiwan” – he points out that over the past few years, several Pacific nations have switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

“And lastly, resources: China is the main customer for Pacific resources and these are important to China’s development. So securing better access to these resources is also a priority for China.”

But China’s Pacific interests have increasingly sparked concern in Australia, which has traditionally considered the Pacific to be its “backyard”.

In recent years, Canberra has even ramped up aid to the region to curtail Chinese influence. In 2018, it launched the “Pacific Step-up” policy to re-engage with its “Pacific family”. It also started a multi-billion dollar infrastructure fund, widely seen as a counter to China’s loans and spends in the region.

But earlier this year, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a move that Australia’s Labor party called “the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” in 80 years.

Last week, Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong visited Fiji, coinciding with Mr Yi’s trip – a sign of growing competition between the two countries.

Then on Thursday Ms Wong travelled to Samoa, her second visit to the Pacific since being sworn in earlier last month, where she announced a new eight-year partnership that included Australia’s donation of a new maritime patrol boat.

The deal that could ‘change the regional order’
The deal that was scuppered “had the potential to change the regional order,” said Mr Sora.

A leaked version of the draft agreement revealed Beijing significantly increasing its activities in the South Pacific – from more financial assistance to training police to creating a China-Pacific free trade zone.

“The proposed cooperation on regional policing suggests Beijing is interested in pursuing and creating regional security architecture. It’s unclear how it would align and complement the existing security architecture,” says Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.

“The reference to cyber security [also] raises national security concerns,” she adds.

If the deal had been signed, Mr Sora says, it would have led to “cooperation that would start to really complicate the existing relations in the region… [especially those with] Australia and New Zealand.”

Some nations reacted angrily to the deal, with the President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) saying the offer was “disingenuous” and would “ensure Chinese influence in government [and] economic control” of key industries.

“It is clear from the statements of Fiji, Samoa and Niue, as well as FSM and Palau, that there were strong concerns about the lack of consensus around the deal,” Dr Powles said.

“The outcome is a direct result of Pacific states deciding that the deal was off the table.”

Did Ms Wong’s timely trip to the Pacific – and her pitch to maintain Australia’s influence in the region – have any effect on the outcome of the deal?

“No. It was a result of Pacific collective action… [and is] a demonstration of Pacific sovereignty,” says Dr Tess Newton Cain of Griffith University.

Mr Sora agrees: “[It was] not so much a result of pressure from Australia or other countries, but perhaps evidence that in pushing this agreement, China did not provide sufficient opportunity for the region to consider and input its concerns.

“China sought to short-circuit regional discussions by presenting this package, and this appears to have failed.”

So what now?
“It certainly signals that Chinese diplomatic efforts at the regional level have been unsuccessful but we can expect China to double down on its bilateral relationships now,” Dr Powles says.

Mr Sora agrees, adding that Mr Wang has “signed a number of bilateral agreements on this trip and will likely be seeking more as his trip progresses”.

After news of the deal being called off broke, China released a position paper stating that it was still “committed to deepening its strategic partnership” with Pacific nations.

The fact that China released this “so soon after the meeting indicates that working multilaterally is something they want to pursue and keep that conversation going”, Dr Newton Cain adds.

The paper lists an extensive set of proposals that China has for the region, including providing grants to various Pacific islands initiatives, and various forums to remain in constant communication – a clear sign that Beijing plans to push ahead with its Pacific ambitions.

“I think it’s a fair indication that China over-reached in what it was asking of Pacific countries,” Mr Sora says. “[But] China’s long-term ambitions to establish a security presence in the Pacific will remain.” -(BBC)-

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