China, Pacific island nations fail to reach consensus on security, trade deal

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) and Fiji PM Frank Bainimarama arriving for a joint press conference in Fiji's capital city Suva on May 30, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING -  China’s plan to sign a broad trade and security deal with 10 Pacific island nations has fallen through, after the countries failed to reach an agreement during a closely watched visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the region.

Mr Wang told his 10 Pacific counterparts not to be “too anxious” about China’s motives in the region, after their virtual summit in Fiji on Monday (May 30).

The Chinese diplomat is midway through a 10-day tour of eight Pacific nations.

Beijing had intended to get the Pacific countries to sign a communique and five-year action plan during the summit.

The sweeping plan included strengthening cooperation in areas such as traditional and non-traditional security, climate change, providing humanitarian and Covid-19 aid, and establishing a free trade area.

China would also appoint a special envoy to the region.

The deal, leaked last week ahead of the summit, has faced opposition from at least one Pacific island nation.

Micronesia President David Panuelo had written a letter to fellow leaders, saying the outcome documents from the summit sought to shift countries into Beijing’s orbit, “intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them”.

However, the current heightened geopolitical tensions raised the risk of China getting into conflict with countries such as Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand, he added.

The 10 Pacific island countries at the summit, which recognise China instead of Taiwan, are the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia.

After the meeting, Mr Wang reportedly said some had questioned China’s aims in actively engaging the Pacific islands. He pointed out that China also supported developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

“Don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous, because the common development and prosperity of China and all the other developing countries would only mean great harmony, greater justice and greater progress of the whole world,” he said. 

Pacific island leaders had said they could not come to an agreement because of a lack of consensus. “As always, we put consensus first,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

Mr Wang told reporters in Fiji that further in-depth discussions were needed to shape more consensus on cooperation. He said China will release a position paper listing its positions, propositions and cooperation proposals. 

During his visit, Mr Wang has said that the Pacific islands are not any country’s “backyard” and have the right to make their own choices. His remarks are a thinly veiled criticism of Australia, whose politicians had previously referred to the Pacific islands in such a manner.

The minister, who has already visited the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji, will also travel to Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

China has been stepping up its engagement of Pacific island nations, which experts say provide Beijing with a strategic foothold in a region also contested by Australia, the US and their allies.

Just over a month ago, China signed a controversial security pact with the Solomon Islands, leading to concern among Washington, Canberra and their allies that it could lead to a Chinese military presence there.

Beijing has said the deal concerns domestic policing and protecting the safety of Chinese citizens in the country. 

International relations expert Shi Yinhong of Renmin University of China said the Solomon Islands security arrangement had sparked considerable concern in other Pacific island nations.

“Jumping from a security agreement with a single country to an agreement with a region, these countries will feel like China’s appetite is too big,” he added.

“Looking at how complicated international politics is now, the prospect of such a deal is not possible in the near future, it will have to be delayed.”

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