China Falls Short on Big Pacific Deal but Finds Smaller Wins

SUVA, Fiji — China fell short Monday on a bold plan to have 10 Pacific nations endorse a sweeping new agreement covering everything from security to fisheries as some in the region expressed deep concerns.

But there have been plenty of smaller wins for China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi as he continues an island-hopping tour of the region.

Wang visited Fiji in order to host a crucial meeting with foreign ministers of the 10 islands nations.

Wang and Frank Bainimarama, the Fijian Prime Minister, spoke about thirty minutes. They then left abruptly while reporters shouted questions. Many details about the meeting were not disclosed.

But it was clear the nations hadn’t endorsed China’s plan.

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“As always, we put consensus first among our countries throughout any discussion on new regional agreements,” Bainimarama said.

While there have been growing international concerns about Beijing’s military and financial ambitions in the region, many Fijians see a benefit in foreign investment wherever it comes from, so long as it uplifts the people.

Georgina Matilda claimed that working at China Railway was the best thing she did.

Another Fijian, Miliane Rokolita, said China’s increased presence had benefited people.

A scaffolding was erected on Friday, May 27th, 2022 at the China Railway site near Suva, Fiji.

AP Photo/Aileen Torres-Bennett

“They bring us bigger houses. They are a source of income for Fiji. They’re good people,” Rokolita said.

The Associated Press has obtained documents that show Wang sought to have the 10 countries endorse a prewritten agreement. This was according to The Associated Press.

But Wang was unable to get the consensus he’d sought.

David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, told other Pacific leaders he wouldn’t endorse the plan, warning them in a letter that it would needlessly heighten geopolitical tensions and threaten regional stability.

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Panuelo called it “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes” and said it “threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst.”

During the news conference Monday, Wang listed some areas where the countries had been able to find agreement and said he’d keep working on others.

“After the meeting, China will release its own position paper on our own positions, propositions, and cooperation proposals with Pacific Island countries,” Wang said through an interpreter. “And going forward, we will continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus.”

Samoa Observer released this photo on May 27, 2022. This shows Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, boarding from Apia International Airport. He is arriving for an official trip to Samoa.


China and the Pacific sign bilateral agreements

While China may have fallen short on its plans for a grand multilateral agreement, it has been signing smaller bilateral agreements with the Pacific nations every day during Wang’s tour.

Wang was in Kiribati to visit a crucial fishing site that is the same size as California on Friday. Kiribati’s government said afterwards the two nations had signed 10 agreements ranging from cooperating on economic goals to building a specific bridge.

Kiribati’s government did not immediately respond to a request by the AP to provide details of the agreements.

In his news conference, Wang said “some have been questioning why China has been so active in supporting Pacific Island countries.”

China has been a champion of other countries in the Pacific since the 1960s, when it supported African nations in building railways.

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“My advice for those people is: Don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous,” Wang said.

After the news conference, China’s ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo took a few questions from reporters, saying there had been “some concerns on specific issues” from some of the 10 nations about the proposed agreement.

“We never impose anything on other countries, let alone to our developing friends and small island countries,” Qian said.

Wang had mentioned China’s intention to publish the position paper within one week. Parts of this agreement were an offer to China for assistance.

A draft of the proposed multilateral agreement obtained by the AP shows that China wants to train Pacific police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement cooperation.

This photo was supplied by Fiji’s government. Ratu Wiliame Catonivere is seen watching as Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, signs the Visitors Book at Suva State House, Fiji. Monday May 30, 2022.

Fiji Government via AP

China also wants to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries — which would include the Pacific’s lucrative tuna catch — increase cooperation on running the region’s internet networks, and set up cultural Confucius Institutes and classrooms. China mentions also the possibility of establishing a free trade zone with Pacific countries.

In a speech on Thursday, U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken stated that China poses a longer-term and more grave threat to the United States than Russia.

“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order — and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” he said. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”

China responded by saying that disinformation was being spread by the U.S. The aim of Blinken’s speech was to “contain and suppress China’s development and uphold U.S. hegemony,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. “We strongly deplore and reject this.”

China says that in the Pacific, cooperation between Beijing and the island nations has been expanding in a development that’s welcomed by those countries.

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Fiji’s economy was severely affected by the pandemic coronavirus. The critical tourism sector was closed overnight, and the GDP dropped by 15%. Fiji’s world is reopening and the people of Fiji are eager to see China sign the checks.

China’s involvement in the region doesn’t come completely out of the blue. Fiji is home to many Chinese Fijians who have run corner stores and other businesses for a long time.

“There’s a good side and a bad side,” said Nora Nabukete, a student at the University of the South Pacific. ”We get more money into the economy, being pumped in and stuff, but then there’s also a side where they bring in a lot of new things that are new to the Fijian culture.”

Nabukete worries about the seedier side that has been associated with Chinese investment in Fiji — a supposed influx of gambling, gangs and drugs.

She said that aligning with China could mean that Fiji creates tension with the United States and other Western nations, and for that reason, she hopes that Fiji doesn’t endorse Wang’s agreement.

“There’s so much more to lose in the future than what we’re experiencing now if Fiji does sign,” she said.

Perry reports from Wellington in New Zealand

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