June 6, 2022
SYDNEY/BEIJING – Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi’s eight-nation Pacific tour may not have secured a security and trade agreement with all the island nations visited, but it did underline China’s resolve to build partnerships and cooperation in the region.
It was not, as some Western media reports claimed, an exercise to drive a wedge between the Pacific Island states and their Western partners, experts said.
“If anything, the trip underlined the fact China is also open to wider trade and security links with the Pacific,” said Professor Zhu Ying, director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business at the University of South Australia.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour was not, as some Western media reports claimed, an exercise to drive a wedge between the Pacific Island states and their Western partners, experts said
Zhu said the United States, Australia and New Zealand, to a lesser extent, worry about China’s role in the Pacific because “they view the Pacific as their own territory” of influence.
“Some island leaders resent that and have said some countries (Australia and the US in particular) see the Pacific as their backyard,” he said.
“All China wants to do is help develop these nations … not build military bases. That is only in the imagination of those in the West such as Australia and the United States.”
Zhu said whatever China offers Pacific nations it is up to them. “They can take it or leave it,” he said. “They are sovereign nations after all.”
Colin Mackerras, professor emeritus at Griffith University in Queensland and one of the country’s leading Sinologists, agreed saying “the point is these are sovereign nations able to do business with whoever they want. The ultimate decision is on the countries themselves.”
He said many Western commentators and politicians viewed Wang’s tour with “disapproval” saying it was aimed against Australia with some describing it as an act of “aggression”.
“I don’t see it that way,” Mackerras said. “China has every right to take this initiative.”
A report in the Samoa Observer on June 1 said Samoa’s Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa had taken “exception” to the region’s bigger nations “taking a sudden interest” in the Pacific after the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China.
This was a veiled reference to Australia where, despite a new government in Canberra, viewed Wang’s tour as a threat to regional security.
Fiame said members of the AUKUS and Quad “do not seek the views of Pacific Island nations”. AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group comprises Australia, India, Japan and the US.
“There are times they want to talk and there are times when they look past us on such matters,” she was quoted as saying.
Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said China has spent several years paying regular attention to the Pacific.
“So, in that sense Wang Yi’s trip to the Pacific in a continuation of that,” he told the China Daily.
Wang began his tour on May 26 in the Solomon Islands and ended in Timor Leste on June 4.
On May 30 he held a virtual meeting in Fiji with foreign ministers from all the Pacific Island countries which recognise China – the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tong, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia – where he outlined a wide ranging economic and security package.
Not everyone attending the virtual meeting agreed with all the proposals, though.
Laurenceson said the package offered to the Pacific Island nations was “ambitious” but expects some parts “may be taken up” by some of them.
“The point is these are sovereign nations able to do business with whoever they want. The ultimate decision is on the countries themselves. Not China,” he said.
As to reports China intends to expand militarily into the Pacific, Laurenceson said claims about a string of bases are “dealing mostly in speculation”.
Professor David Goodman, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said he did not see the trip as a “prelude” to building military bases in the Pacific.
He said the Pacific Island nations are small economies and China does not stand to gain a lot from them economically.
“China does not want confrontation and is genuine in wanting to help Pacific island states develop,” he said.
Professor Jane Golley, of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra, said despite some of the negative media coverage of the visit “there could be environmental, economic and even security benefits to be gained by engaging with the world’s second largest economy”.
She suggested looking at the positive benefits China’s engagement with the Pacific can bring “rather than focusing on a one-sided narrative which only increases geopolitical tensions”.
Hans Hendrischke, professor of Chinese Business and Management at the University of Sydney said the “exclusive geostrategic focus on China’s motivation for intensifying its relations with the Pacific is one-sided and overlooks the long-term economic motivations”.
He said China is already the largest trading partner for a number of Pacific nations with interests mainly in fisheries and mining.
Hendrischke said: “China is securing these interests through the establishment of supply chains, including sea transport, air transport, and communication. China’s Belt and Road Initiative provides the necessary infrastructure to serve as a development model.”
He said the geostrategic perspective overlooks the role that Australia and established players have in the Pacific. “Australia remains a major partner for the Pacific nations in terms of providing basic support and as an entrepot in supply chains,” Hendrischke said.
Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, at the Victoria University of Wellington, said Wang’s tour demonstrates that China is “serious and committed” about its relationships with Pacific Island countries and is making a “big effort to do a number of different types of agreements and to strengthen its relations with Pacific Island countries.”
Young said Wang’s tour saw several agreements signed, adding that the depth of the trip “caught a number of commentators off guard”.