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Commentary: What does China want from the Pacific Islands?

China is lobbying for more support from the Pacific Islands but has learnt to downplay its planned co-operation with the region on security, says a researcher.

Commentary: What does China want from the Pacific Islands?
Vanuatu's Prime Minister Bob Loughman Weibur and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a signing ceremony of agreements between the two countries, Port Vila, Jun 1, 2022. (Photo: AFP/Ginny Stein)

CANBERRA: By the time Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s ten-day tour of the Pacific was over in early June, he had met with leaders from all ten Pacific Island countries that have diplomatic relations with China.

This tour is the second of its kind since 2006 (his predecessor Li Zhaoxing visited the region that year). It follows a meeting of Pacific foreign ministers with China in 2021.

But what does China want from the region and why is it showing such strong interest in the Pacific?

DIPLOMATIC ALLIES AND STRATEGIC FOOTHOLDS

China seeks two main things from the region – one diplomatic and one strategic.

Diplomatically, it needs the voting support of Pacific Islands at the United Nations. These countries, most of which are small, have an equal vote at the UN. 

Their support – on issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South and East China Seas, and human rights – matters to China. For example, during Wang’s visit, Pacific leaders pledged to stick to the “One China” policy. This means they will recognise the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan. 

However, the China-Taiwan diplomatic battle is far from over. In the Pacific, Palau, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Nauru still recognise Taiwan.

Strategically, China sees the Pacific Islands as a target of what’s known as “South-South co-operation” – partnerships between developing countries.

China’s mistrust of developed countries is deep-rooted and has persisted since the founding of the communist regime in 1949. To reduce the strategic pressure from developed countries, China strives to forge close ties with the developing world.

In this sense, Wang’s Pacific visit is largely prompted by recent heightened competition between China and the US-led traditional powers.

The Quad countries (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) recently released a joint leaders statement promising to increase their support to countries in the Indo-Pacific region. 

It is hardly a coincidence that on the same day, China’s foreign affairs ministry revealed the itinerary for Wang’s Pacific visit. Details of concrete achievements arising from the provinces of Chinese Guangdong, Fujian and Shandong’s engagement with the Pacific Islands were released the following day.

China is signalling it will not recede in its competition with traditional powers. It also wants to send a message that a closer relationship with China will benefit the Pacific Islands.

GREAT SECURITY SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PACIFIC

In the long run, the Pacific Islands have great security significance for China.

China’s People’s Liberation Army, especially the navy, has aimed to break the “island chains” (in particular, there are a series of military bases on islands near China and in the Pacific, which Beijing believes the US and its allies are using to encircle China).

The Pacific Islands sit along one of these island chains. Little wonder, then, that the Chinese military is keen to gain a foothold in the Pacific in the long run – this would be crucial if competition between China and the US deteriorates into rivalry and even military conflict.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 9, 2019. (File photo: Thomas Peter/Pool/AFP)

This is why traditional powers are alarmed by the China-Solomon Islands security pact – despite clarification from Beijing and Honiara that China will not establish a military base on the Solomon Islands.

To achieve these objectives, China has worked hard to foster a closer relationship with the Pacific Islands. In particular, it has highlighted its respect for the Pacific Islands as equal partners, economic opportunities for Pacific commodities to enter the massive Chinese market, and the benefits of Chinese aid for the region.

PACIFIC ISLANDS REJECT CHINA'S PROPOSALS

In this context, China proposed two broad agreements to be signed by all its Pacific partner countries during Wang’s visit.

However, this plan was shelved due to the lack of consensus among Pacific leaders on the nature of these agreements and the potential negative implications for regional security.

For example, prior to Wang’s visit, President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo wrote to the leaders of all Pacific Island countries and territories warning that signing these agreements may drag Pacific Islands into conflicts between China and the US in future.

This may have taken China by surprise; President Panuelo paid a successful state visit to China in 2019 and lauded his country’s relationship with China as a “great friendship taken to a new high”.

This was a clear setback for China. As a suboptimal solution, China’s ministry of foreign affairs turned the two agreements into a position paper and published it on May 30.

The main difference is that in the position paper, China only briefly states its readiness to co-operate with Pacific Islands to promote regional security, combat transnational crimes and tackle non-traditional security threats.

In contrast, the original two agreements had more details on security cooperation, such as providing police training for the region and strengthening cooperation on cyber security.

Apparently, China has learnt to downplay its planned cooperation with Pacific Islands on security, an increasingly sensitive area amid the competition.

Looking into the near future, it is likely that China will be more cautious in expanding its engagement with the Pacific region. It will likely focus on pragmatic cooperation in less sensitive areas like climate change, poverty reduction, agriculture and disaster relief.

China will lobby for more support from the Pacific Islands before it is willing to reintroduce the broad agreements.

Denghua Zhang is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.

Source: CNA/geh
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