China’s Wang travels to Solomon Islands as Australia seeks to thwart Pacific deal

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SYDNEY — China’s foreign minister kicked off a Pacific tour on Thursday to push forward a sweeping multilateral security deal that has heightened concerns about the country’s growing assertiveness in the region and left Australia scrambling to mend its relations with its island neighbours.

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

“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t put strings on, or impose unsustainable financial burdens,” she said in a thinly veiled dig into China’s lending policies. “We are a partner that will not erode Pacific priorities or institutions. We believe in transparency.

A day earlier, it was revealed that China was seeking an agreement with 10 Pacific island countries on police, cybersecurity, maritime surveillance, fishing rights and the creation of a free trade zone.

China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors

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

“We must respond to this because it is China that seeks to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since World War II,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told AFP. the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Thusday.

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

But there were also signs of rejection of China’s proposed deal, with the President of the Federated States of Micronesia writing a scathing letter to other Pacific leaders urging them to reject the proposal as it would undermine their sovereignty and trigger a new ” Cold War” between China and the West.

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

Beijing’s broad proposal on the Pacific follows the security agreement it signed with the Solomon Islands last month. The deal, which some analysts say could lead to a Chinese military base 1,000 miles off the Australian coast, has raised 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 in our power” to protect the national unity of the Solomon Islands and support the economic development, according to a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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

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

But that language could upset Pacific leaders, said Tess Newton Cain, Pacific analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane. “This indicates a presupposition or premise that, in one way or another, the foreign policy of the Solomon Islands is the responsibility of Australia.

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

These 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, as it signals “a shift from structuring Pacific engagement on a bilateral basis to multilateral approaches”.

But Panuelo’s letter showed there was some concern. He said the draft agreement and the accompanying five-year “action plan” showed that China had “faithfully done its homework, because the choice of words is, on the face of it and at first sight, attractive to many of us – maybe for all of us”.

“They talk about democracy, equity, freedom and justice, and compare these ideas with concepts that we as Pacific Islanders would like to align ourselves with, such as sustainable development, fighting change climate change and economic growth,” he wrote. . “Where the problems are are in the details, and the details suggest that China is seeking…to gain access and control of our region, resulting in the fracture of peace, security and governance. regional stability.

Besides the Solomon Islands, Wang will travel to Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Fiji, where he will hold a meeting with Pacific foreign ministers during which he is expected to present the proposed multilateral agreement.

As Australia tries to dissuade Pacific island countries from entering into this agreement, it will be helped by its change of administration. The country’s standing in the region has suffered from Morrison’s lukewarm approach to tackling climate change, said Graeme Smith, a China and Pacific expert at the Australian National University.

Albanese’s somewhat more ambitious climate plan has offered an opening for improved relations, Smith said, although many Pacific island nations hope Australia will go further. The prime minister’s argument for increasing opportunities to work and immigrate to Australia was sound, he added, as it offered something China could not.

But Smith cautioned against viewing Pacific leaders as pawns in a geopolitical chess game. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is “a very cunning player who knows exactly what he is doing” signing a security deal with China.

The visit also served to highlight a way in which some Solomons believe growing ties with China have hurt their country.

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

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

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

At the same time, she said many Solomon Islanders would welcome Chinese help to develop the country after riots devastated the capital last year.

‘Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burns amid fresh violence as Australian troops arrive

“Something has to be done quickly,” she said. “And if China is able to provide those things, then I think Solomon Islands will be happy to see the infrastructure ramp up.”

She also noted that the security deal and Mr. Wang’s visit had prompted Australia, the United States and New Zealand to take notice of the small island nation. “For us, it’s a good thing,” she said. “Finally, the focus is on us now.”

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

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