The Butuka school in Papua New Guinea is plastered with the face of Xi Jinping, the Presidential Palace in East Timor was built with Chinese funding, and the stadium for next year’s Pacific Games in Solomon Islands will be an icon of Beijing’s new partnership with its closest friend in the region.
All around the Pacific, billions of dollars in Chinese-funded projects showcase Beijing’s growing appetite for geopolitical power. They are coupled with promises of climate change co-operation, pandemic economic recovery and thousands of university scholarships.
So, when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi walked into a meeting with the Pacific leaders this week, he may have expected a different reception than the scepticism that greeted him.
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, both toured the Pacific.Credit:
China, skilled at making individual deals with separate countries, wanted to run its first international bloc – an ambitious Pacific-wide deal that would take all of its economic proposals under one banner and combine it with security co-operation and police training.
Beijing’s “Common Development Vision” sparked immediate concerns in Washington and Canberra. Bruised by China’s April security deal with Solomon Islands, the Australian government could not afford a region-wide deal to take shape less than 2000 kilometres off the Queensland coast. It set off a race between Wang and Foreign Minister Penny Wong around the largest Pacific countries.
Wang had attempted to woo leaders by telling them China would treat them as equals. He said that Beijing did not have any political objectives and that all it wanted was “win-win co-operation”.
“The South Pacific region should be a stage for co-operation, rather than an arena for vicious competition,” he said in Honiara. “China has no intention of competing with anyone, let alone engaging in geopolitical competition, and has never established a so-called sphere of influence.”
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s press conferences were tightly scripted.Credit:Fijian government
But Beijing’s tactics, rather than its rhetoric, revealed the scale of its ambitions.
Wang first got Pacific Island nations offside by attempting to go around the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva. Instead of going through the historic and occasionally chaotic secretariat, China chaired its own meeting, pulling a dozen countries into its orbit rather than engaging with theirs.
Then it attempted to ram through a 10-country proposal in a matter of days, misjudging the careful and patient diplomacy required to navigate an area that spans three million kilometres, 13 million people and hundreds of distinct cultures.
“It was too big a fruit, too quickly pursued,” says Dr Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “The international hurdles and the local domestic complications are more severe than they realised.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrives at Honiara in the Solomon Islands.Credit:SIBC
Few countries send their foreign minister without a deal already sewed up, but for China, it unravelled further from there.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiamē Mataʻafa was direct in her feedback to Beijing. “You cannot have regional agreements if the region has not met to discuss it,” she said. “To be called into discussion and have an expectation that there will be an outcome was something we could not agree to.”
Wang, who committed an unprecedented 10 days to the region as foreign minister, will leave for Beijing this weekend with a swag of previously negotiated bilateral deals and little else to show for it.
China’s Foreign Ministry miscalculated, according to one of its closest observers.
“This unsuccessful attempt will make the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan at least do more in that region to check China,” says Shi. “The strategic competition will be far from easy for both sides.”
The Pacific now finds itself in the middle of this great power struggle. A vast, poorly understood and increasingly vital region, it sits in a strategic zone between China, the United States and Australia. This group of a dozen nations showed this week that despite their small economic heft, they carried enough diplomatic unity to navigate the ambitions of the world’s next great superpower and its rivals.
Henry Puna, the former prime minister of the Cook Islands – a nation of 18,000 people – and current secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, said on Monday the Pacific was “well aware of the increasing intensity, of geopolitical manoeuvring in our region today”.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets with Henry Puna, the secretary-general of the Pacific Island Forum, on Thursday.Credit:Getty Images
“The onus is on us, and our partners, to genuinely engage to better navigate these relationships in our best interest as sovereign countries, but more so, bearing in mind that as a collective, we are stronger and more effective,” he said.
Puna knows that a divided Pacific is a weak Pacific. China has Tonga up to its eyeballs in $180 million of debt. Kiribati’s government is teetering on the edge of approving a Chinese-built runway halfway between Asia and the US west coast. And PNG faces the turmoil of an election in a month’s time, with thousands of police body armour sets and a $200 million offer for a Chinese fisheries park in Daru on the table.
Puna told Pacific Island countries that despite China’s attempts to woo each of them individually, any regional deal had to be made through consensus.
“We should not be distracted but rather, we should ensure that our forum leaders’ vision for our region, drives all our effort and our collaboration,” he said.
The unity appears to have paid off. In Beijing’s updated position paper – rushed out within hours of the trade and security deal failing to pass – there are commitments for China to appoint a special envoy for Pacific affairs, provide funding for climate change mitigation, send medical teams to the region and establish more than 5000 training places. All the economic and humanitarian pledges are met, but with none of the policing, cybersecurity and data-sharing attachments in China’s Common Development Vision.
“Puna was very much exercising the essential spirit of Pacific regionalism,” says Dr Tess Newton Cain, an associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute who has lived in Vanuatu for 20 years.
“Even if the forum may look shaky what it really comes down to is, ‘we work together, we build consensus’.
“This is a process that takes time and when prepared to vote to devote that time to it. And people that want to work with us need to realise that this is the way we do things, and we’re not about to change the way we do things. We’re not about to be railroaded into things that we don’t know, that we don’t feel comfortable with.
“I think it’s been a huge lesson for China. But I think it should also be a lesson for everybody that if you want to work with Pacific states and their leadership, this is the way things are done.”
Newton Cain says suggestions that the Pacific knocked back the deal thanks to lobbying by Australia’s foreign minister are misguided.
“I just don’t see that that’s true,” she says. “I think what’s important is that the new government has recognised the importance of being present in the region.”
The $500 million Pacific step-up was the Morrison government’s signature foreign policy, but it failed to make substantial inroads because of the Coalition’s aversion to climate change action – an existential threat to the Pacific. COVID-19 also forced much of its diplomatic engagement onto Zoom. Through circumstance and other priorities, Marise Payne only made a handful of visits to the Pacific in her four years as foreign minister. Wong has been to three Pacific countries in her first 10 days in office.
What was noticed in Suva, Apia and Nuku’alofa was the change in tone delivered by Wong – and her ability to prosecute arguments that mattered to Pacific island nations without having to water them down when she returned home.
She did not hesitate in Apia on Thursday when asked what policy area she was itching to change now she was in office after nine years in opposition: climate.
“I spent a lot of years trying to change our country’s position,” she said. “I have two daughters. I would like us to be able to say to our children that we did something I think that matters.”
Mata’afa, the Samoan Prime Minister, was diplomatic. “We’re very pleased in Samoa and no doubt in the Pacific region that with the new Australian government, the policy shift brings them closer to alignment with Pacific advocacy,” she said.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong (right) holds a joint press conference with Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa in Apia, Samoa.
Allan Behm, Wong’s former senior adviser, says Wong is a natural conciliator, particularly when dealing with disparate cultural and political agendas.
“Penny is naturally good at negotiating through that kind of cultural mix,” he says.
“She’s very natural, for example, as a person born in Sabah, Malaysia, in dealing with the cultural mixes of Southeast Asia, she’s perfectly at home in that. So, she’ll bring that talent I think, into the way in which she conducts Australia’s relations in the Pacific.
“She’s extremely good at identifying what her particular policy interests might be. In listening to what her interlocutors my particular policy interests are, and then looking for bridges between them, looking for convergence, looking for where Australia and whoever it is might meet.
“But her thinking is always: how do we get the best mutual deal out of this, which has got some chance of sticking for the longest period of time?”
Behm, now with the Australia Institute, believes the government has its work cut out for it to mend ties after years of regional negligence.
“Australia has a capacity for considerable condescension in the Pacific and the language we often use is regarded as being offensive,” he says.
Newtown Cain agrees that even terms like the “Pacific family” harnessed by Payne and now Wong should be reconsidered.
“You never hear the same about Asian partners,” she says. “It can be used in a way that some of my Pacific colleagues feel is a bit patronising. It’s like we have to have a different way of talking about the Pacific than we would about people from Europe or people from Asia or people from North America. It’s got to be different because they’re somehow not on the same level.”
Part of the challenge is the chronic under emphasis on the Pacific Islands in Australian education systems. There is only one university in Australia that offers Pacific studies at the degree level, ANU. Pacific education in high school starts and ends at the Kokoda track.
“Australian’s overall awareness and understanding of the Pacific and Pacific Island people is just starting to get past a few of those tropes around ‘they all play rugby or they are all corrupt’,” says Newton Cain. “We need to really engage with the diversity of the region.”
China for its part is pursuing another type of engagement. When Wang landed in East Timor on Friday he could visit not only the Chinese built Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Presidential Palace but also by the largest shopping centres in Dili, many of them operated by Chinese businesses.
The same model has spread throughout the Pacific, concentrating Chinese commercial power before diplomatic overtures are made. The state-backed model is one that Australia cannot compete with because few Australian businesses are willing to take on the commercial risks of operating in poorly regulated markets outside of mining and other high-risk, high-profit industries.
East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta asked in May why anyone thought he would not take on investment from both sides. “It would be a total mistake not to have a good relationship with China,” he said.
Locals, worried that the Chinese business influx will take away their share of the market, are not so sure.
Dili businessman Mateus da Costa says he feels “this is a new invasion of the Chinese people through their economic activities”.Credit:Raimundos Oki
Businessman Mateus da Costa says he feels “very threatened all this time” because “almost all corners of Dili and in various municipalities have been controlled by Chinese businessmen”.
“I feel this is a new invasion of the Chinese people through their economic activities, but our government has remained silent so far. It has to be well regulated, our indigenous people can also do small businesses like this,” he says.
“When they come here, they have to make a big investment in order to create new job opportunities, not to take away small business activities like this.”
The Timorese government will press ahead with four agreements across air services, health, economic and technical co-operation. A container port built by China Harbour Engineering Co in Dili’s Tibar Bay, less than 700 kilometres from the Australian coast, is due to open this year. A port on the opposite coast, facing Darwin “would be a major security concern”, a Japanese government official told Nikkei in May. One of China’s key justifications for signing the security deal with Solomon Islands in May was protecting Chinese businesses. It will now be able to do so by force.
Those investments mean China’s ambitions for the Pacific are unlikely to be curtailed by its overreach this week. It is the Chinese Communist Party’s first attempt at a multilateral deal of this scale. In time, they will get better at the soft diplomacy legwork needed to get a deal of that scale passed. Its biggest obstacle is the unity of the Pacific Forum. If they want to remain part of the discussion, Australia and United States are going to have to work very hard at supporting the Pacific’s aspirations.
With Raimundos Oki
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