BEIJING — China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting the South Pacific with a 20-person delegation this week in a display of Beijing’s growing military and diplomatic presence in the region.
The U.S. has traditionally been the area’s major power, but China has been pursuing inroads, particularly with the Solomon Islands, a nation less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Australia. In a sign of Australia’s concern, new Foreign Minister Penny Wong is heading to Fiji less than a week after her Labor Party won national elections.
Below is a look at Wang’s tour and its likely outcomes.
Wang Yi’s next move?
Wang’s 10-day tour will take him to the Solomon Islands (Kiribi), Samoa and Fiji.
The visits emphasize China’s push for engagement with the region, which has traditionally retained close ties with Beijing’s major rivals including the United States and Australia. China’s long-running struggle to gain influence over Taiwan has been a factor in this protracted conflict. China considers the self-governed island its own territory and opposes foreign interactions that treat Taiwan as autonomous and independent, but four South Pacific island nations are among Taiwan’s dwindling number of formal diplomatic allies.
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A stronger Chinese presence could allow its navy forces to call port and place personnel and equipment on a base there. This would make it difficult for the U.S. to plan its defense, especially considering plans for contingency in case of a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan. Japan and other allies would be drawn in.
Downtown Honiara as seen from December 6, 2021 when the Solomon Islands’ troubled Prime Minister Manasseh Sogare was subject to a no-confidence motion and international peacekeepers arrived in the crisis-hit capital.
MAVIS PODOKOLO/AFP via Getty Images
What’s behind China’s new diplomatic push?
China is now a leader under Xi Jinping. The Belt and Road Initiative aims to strengthen its international economic and diplomatic clout. It focuses on linking East Asia and Europe via ports, rails and power plants, and other infrastructure.
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Mixed results were seen with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, client countries of China, falling in deep debt. Meanwhile developed nations have cited national security reasons in banning Chinese-backed telecom companies like Huawei. However, the South Pacific remains open to Chinese advancements at low cost, and possibly high rewards.
China has mostly sat on the sidelines over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its top leaders haven’t left the country in more than two years amid strict anti-COVID measures and deteriorating ties with the U.S., Canada and the EU. A foreign policy win would strengthen Xi’s position and help to withstand criticism about his handling the pandemic as well as its economic and financial costs.
What’s in the pact between China and Solomon Islands?
The agreement could allow China to send security forces to the Solomons at its government’s request for what are described as peacekeeping duties. The agreement would allow Chinese naval ships to visit the Solomons to replenish supplies and offer recreation to sailors. This could lead to permanent Chinese presence on these islands.
If the Solomon Islands’ agreement with China is deemed to be a threat, the United States will take appropriate action.
What is Australia’s major concern?
Australia, which is concerned about China’s expansion in the Pacific, has asked Beijing to remove trade sanctions, if they want to reestablish their bilateral relations.
The Chinese premier’s congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on his election victory was widely seen as a relaxation of Beijing’s two-year ban on high-level government contact with Australia. Premier Li Keqiang stated that China is ready to cooperate with Australia in order to strengthen ties. These ties plummeted following the passage of legislation by Australia targeting Chinese influence on its political discourse and elections.
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China has imposed a number of trade restrictions in China’s recent past to prevent Australian exports valued at billions of dollars, including those for coal, wine and barley.
Is China planning to expand its influence in the South Pacific?
The Associated Press has obtained a draft agreement that China would like to have with 10 Pacific countries. It covers everything, from security to fishing.
The draft shows that China wants to expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly develop a fisheries plan, increase cooperation on running the region’s internet networks, and set up cultural Confucius Institutes and classrooms.
Wang believes that countries will support the agreed-to agreement in a joint communiqué after their May 30 Fijian meeting.
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