China’s Wang visits Solomon Islands as Australia seeks counter counter Pacific deal

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SYDNEY – China’s foreign minister began a Pacific tour Thursday to push a sweeping multilateral security deal that has deepened concerns over the country’s growing assertiveness in the region and left Australia scrambling to repair relations with island neighbors.

As Wang Yi kicked off an eight-country tour in the Solomon Islands on Thursday, his Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, was in Fiji – by Pacific standards, a stone’s throw away – arguing that her nation should remain the region’s closest partner.

“Australia will be a partner that does not come with strings attached, nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” she said in a thinly veiled dig at China’s lending policies. “We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions. We believe in transparency. “

A day earlier, it was revealed that China is seeking a deal with 10 Pacific island countries over policing, cybersecurity, maritime surveillance, fishing rights and the creation of a free-trade area.

China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors

The proposed deal, which was first reported by Reuters, appeared to dispel any notion of a reset between Australia and China, which has waged a two-year trade war against the smaller country. It also underscored the challenge facing the Australian government, which was elected on Saturday after promising Pacific neighbors more aid and action on climate change.

“We need to respond to this because this is China seeking to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday.

Some Pacific islands see the competition as a chance to secure funds for ailing infrastructure and sluggish economic development.

But there were also signs of pushback against China’s proposed deal, with the president of the Federated States of Micronesia writing a scathing letter to fellow Pacific leaders urging them to reject the proposal because it would undermine their sovereignty and spark a new “Cold War” between China and the West.

The Micronesian leader, David Panuelo, called the deal a “smokescreen” hiding a Chinese attempt to “acquire access and control of our region.”

Beijing’s broad Pacific proposal comes on the heels of the security agreement it signed with the Solomon Islands last month. That deal, which some analysts have said could lead to a Chinese military base 1,000 miles from Australia’s shores, sparked concerns in Canberra, Washington and beyond.

Wang said he hoped the bilateral relationship could be an example for other Pacific island nations and pledged to do “everything within our power” to protect the domestic unity of the Solomon Islands and support economic development, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.

The two sides agreed to new projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including preferential tax policies for goods exported to China and further cooperation on fishing, lumber, mining, epidemic prevention and natural disaster relief.

During Australia’s election campaign, the Albanian accused his opponent, conservative incumbent Scott Morrison, of “dropping the ball” by failing to prevent the deal. And Wong called it “the worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II.”

But that language could rankle Pacific leaders, said Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane. “It indicates a presupposition or premise that somehow Solomon Islands’ foreign policy is Australia’s responsibility. “

Wong took a different tone in Fiji on Thursday, saying Australia had “neglected” its neighbors by failing to act on climate change. Albanese has also said he will increase aid, diplomacy and Australian media in the region and expand opportunities for Pacific Islanders to work in and move permanently to Australia.

Those efforts are an attempt to counter China’s new “high energy, high intensity” approach to the region, Newton Cain said. China’s proposed multilateral security agreement was “significant,” she said, because it signals “a shift from structuring Pacific engagement on a bilateral basis to multilateral approaches.”

But Panuelo’s letter showed there was a degree of trepidation. He said the draft agreement and accompanying five-year “action plan” showed China had “faithfully done its homework, as the choice of words are, on their face and at first glance, attractive to many of us – perhaps all of us.”

“They speak of democracy and equity and freedom and justice, and compare and contrast these ideas with concepts that we, as Pacific islands, would want to align ourselves with, such as sustainable development, tackling climate change, and economic growth,” he wrote. . “Where the problems arise are in the details, and the details suggest that China is seeking… to acquire access and control of our region, with the result being the fracturing of regional peace, security, and stability.”

In addition to the Solomon Islands, Wang will visit Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Fiji, where he will host a meeting with Pacific foreign ministers in which he is expected to pitch the proposed multilateral deal.

As Australia tries to dissuade Pacific island countries from taking that deal, it will be aided by its change in administration. The country’s standing in the region suffered because of Morrison’s tepid approach to combating climate change, said Graeme Smith, an expert on China and the Pacific at Australian National University.

Albanese’s somewhat more ambitious climate plan offered an opening for improved relations, Smith said, although many Pacific island nations will be hoping Australia goes further. The prime minister’s pitch to increase opportunities to work in and immigrate to Australia was a savvy one, he added, because it offered something China could not.

But Smith warned against viewing Pacific leaders as pawns in a geopolitical chess game. The Solomon Islands’ prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, is “a very canny player who knows exactly what he’s doing” signing a security agreement with China.

The visit has also served to highlight one way in which some Solomon Islanders feel that growing ties with China have hurt their country.

The Solomon Islands has long boasted a robust and independent media. But the government barred all but three local journalists from attending a Thursday news conference with Wang and Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele, stipulating that they could ask only one question – of Manele.

“What’s the sense of having a news conference?” asked Dorothy Wickham, a local journalist who said she had never seen such secrecy in her country. The security agreement became public only after a draft was leaked in March, she noted.

She feared the security deal with China would mean Chinese-style media restrictions. “It’s fine with us if they apply that to the news in China,” she said. “But if they start applying it here? We have a constitution that gives us freedom to do our work. “

At the same time, she said many Solomon Islanders would welcome Chinese assistance in developing the country after riots devastated the capital last year.

‘Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burn amid new violence as Australian troops arrive

“Something needs to be done quickly,” she said. “And if China is going to be able to provide these things, then I think Solomon Islanders are going to be happy to see the infrastructure go up.”

She also noted that the security agreement and Wang’s visit had spurred Australia, the United States and New Zealand to take notice of the small island country. “For us, it’s been a good thing,” she said. “Finally, the attention is focused on us now.”

Christian Shepherd in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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