China’s push into the region casts shadow over long-awaited Pacific leaders’ meeting
8 Jul 2022|

In ordinary circumstances, the opportunity to celebrate the Pacific Islands Forum’s 50-year contribution to Pacific regionalism would be expected to dominate next week’s leaders’ meeting in Fiji.

However, had circumstances been normal, the half-century anniversary would have been feted last year. Due to two years of border closures and travel restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Suva gathering will be the first chance in three years for the PIF leaders to meet formally.

Covid’s impact has gone well beyond simply preventing two annual meetings. Arguably, the absence of the face-to-face meeting in 2020 contributed significantly to the breakdown in communication that precipitated the Micronesian threat to withdraw from the PIF permanently.

Confirmation of the June agreement to resolve the Micronesian dispute will be on next week’s agenda. It’s not expected to be problematic unless complicated by what has emerged as the meeting’s most sensitive topic.

Ironically, the catalyst for healing the PIF’s internal rift is the issue that may open an even greater cleavage in regional coherence.

In mid-February, the Micronesian leaders announced a ‘pause’ in their denunciations of the PIF treaty, stating that progress had been made on addressing their grievances. They gave the other PIF members until June to confirm the promised reforms.

Less than a fortnight later, a leaked draft of a China – Solomon Islands security agreement has galvanised concern that this would be a not-so-thin wedge for broader Chinese security ambitions in the Pacific islands.

David Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, sent a three-page letter to Solomons’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare detailing his fear that the agreement would embroil the Pacific in a potentially ruinous broader geopolitical power struggle that would ‘fragment’ the region.

Panuelo’s concerns were reinforced when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced a 10-day visit to the Pacific islands in late May to promote two regional agreements.

The first, a proposed China – Pacific island countries common development vision, contained provisions for security and governance cooperation and outlined development aspirations. The second offered a five-year action plan to begin implementing the common vision.

Beijing’s initiative was surprisingly maladroit in both timing and execution. Its temporal proximity to the revelations about the Sino-Solomons agreement as well as its content suggested a desire to extend the Solomons pact to the regional level. An aura of secrecy was added because, like the Solomons pact, these regional proposals came into public view only when they were leaked to the media before the tour began.

The ham-fisted diplomacy of the tour elevated regional concerns when local media were prevented from asking questions of Wang and reports emerged that even newly won Beijing ally Kiribati had to be pressured into allowing the visit.

Again, Panuelo took the lead in denouncing the Chinese initiative by writing an eight-page letter to 21 Pacific leaders setting out the myriad risks embodied in the Chinese proposals. He also pounced on the marginalisation of the islander input through China’s circulation of a ‘predetermined joint communique’.

Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa articulated the views of many of the leaders who met with Wang in Suva in late May that the Chinese proposals should not be considered then. The breadth of the proposals, she argued, required the views of the entire membership of the PIF, not just those states recognising Beijing.

Following this rebuff, China proposed a parallel foreign ministers’ meeting alongside the PIF leaders’ meeting to regain some regional initiative. In the unlikely event it’s held, such a meeting would raise the dysfunctional prospect of the PIF leaders and their foreign ministers reaching different views on Beijing’s regional push.

Beijing has recently promulgated a proposal to synchronise its two stalled regional agreements with its Belt and Road Initiative. Whether that tactic would strengthen acceptance of its ‘vision’ is problematic.

The extraterritorial influence claimed in the Sino-Solomons security agreement has been reasserted against one of the PIF states that will have a say in the leaders’ meeting. Tuvalu was outraged when the Chinese challenged the composition of its delegation to the UN Ocean Conference because it included three Taiwanese nationals.

The traditional friends of the Pacific islands have responded with their own regional initiative to enhance their collective cooperation with PIF states. In late June, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and New Zealand announced the establishment of Partners in the Blue Pacific, a mechanism to more directly support the PIF’s 2050 ‘Blue Pacific’ strategy for regional development.

Wang wrote an op-ed in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times deriding the proposal as an ‘empty shell’, while other critics called it ‘AUKUS plus’ or a constraint on forum sovereignty.

Partially in reaction to all these developments, the PIF has decided to defer the normal post-PIF dialogue partners’ meetings to avoid direct lobbying by the non-PIF states during the leaders’ meeting.

Just how fully the sweeping Chinese initiatives and the various regional and extra-regional reactions will dominate the PIF leaders’ discussions will depend on how willing the member states are to reach a definitive response.

Thus far, the indications are that there’s little appetite for weakening ties with the region’s traditional friends or rewarding Beijing for its overreach in putting regional security so visibly on the table.

Nevertheless, the leaders are likely to feel that holding Beijing’s ‘vision’ at arm’s length is as far as they can go for now without intensifying Chinese pressure for some stake in the regional security game.

Sogavare’s expressed desire for a closer and more permanent security relationship with China on the very eve of the PIF meeting is a complicating development that tangibly reminds other members of the ties between the Sino-Solomons agreement and China’s regional vision.

This is the nightmare of geostrategic rivalry that the PIF has wanted to avoid for the past five years, and now it’s here with the potential for long-term adverse consequences.

All this comes when Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, would prefer to be delivering his much more supportive message on climate change to an audience that has waited a decade to hear it.