The Sydney Herald, June 4, 2022:
China wanted to woo the Pacific – it did not go as planned
All around the Pacific, billions of dollars in Chinese-funded projects showcase Beijing’s growing appetite for geopolitical power. 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.
But Beijing’s tactics revealed the scale of its ambitions.
Wang first got Pacific Island nations offside by attempting to go around the Pacific Islands Forum [4 members have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan] in Suva. China chaired its own meeting, pulling a dozen countries into its orbit. 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.
Dr Shi Yinhong, at Renmin University in Beijing: “It was too big a fruit, too quickly pursued. The international hurdles and the local domestic complications are more severe than they realised. This unsuccessful attempt will make the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan at least do more in that region to check China.”
China 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.
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 told leaders that China would treat them as equals, and that Beijing did not have any political objectives: “China has no intention of competing with anyone.”
Few countries send their foreign minister without a deal already sewed up, but for China, it unravelled further from there.
Wang will leave for Beijing this weekend with previously negotiated bilateral deals and little else.
Henry Puna, the former prime minister of the Cook Islands, and current secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, said the island nations are “well aware of the increasing intensity, of geopolitical manoeuvring in our region today. … As a collective, we are stronger and more effective.” Puna told Pacific Island countries that any regional deal had to be made through consensus: “We should ensure that our forum leaders’ vision for our region, drives all our effort and our collaboration.”
Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiamē Mataʻafa: “You cannot have regional agreements if the region has not met to discuss it.”
Dr Tess Newton Cain, in Vanuatu: “We’re not about to be railroaded into things that we don’t know, that we don’t feel comfortable with.”
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 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.