Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will travel to the Pacific this week to visit eight countries, including the Solomon Islands, as Beijing seeks to solidify its presence there.
Wang will begin his trip in the Solomon Islands on Thursday before visiting Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor during a 10-day tour, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Solomon Islands confirmed the trip on Monday and said that the government was preparing to welcome Wang Yi and a 20-person delegation in Honiara.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the trip will be a “milestone” in bilateral relations.
Li Ming, China’s ambassador to the Solomon Islands, said both sides would sign a “number of key bilateral agreements” during the trip. Wang Yi is also due to meet with Sogavare and the archipelago’s acting governor-general.
The Solomon Islands and its fellow Pacific island nation Kiribati are two of China’s newest allies after switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.
During his Pacific trip, Wang will also attend the second China-Pacific Island Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in person while visiting Fiji. Last year’s summit was held online.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that China aims to develop “friendly and cooperative relations” with the Pacific nations as part of its long-term interests and to promote “peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region”.
The trip will likely raise alarm in the United States and Australia, which this weekend voted the Labour Party into office.
The party has promised to “reset” relations between Canberra and Beijing, which have soured in recent years, but many Australians are still concerned about China’s growing influence in an area regarded as its “backyard”.
Australia has been closely watching developments between the Solomon Islands and China, and were deeply concerned when the two signed a security pact in April. Under the terms of the deal, China will be able to send armed police and warships to the archipelago to “maintain peace”.
While the deal is similar to one with Australia, it has raised concerns that China could use the deal to one day secure a military base there.
“Wang Yi will be seeking to strengthen ties with the Pacific and counter US and Australian efforts to make inroads at China’s expense. He will sign the pact with the Solomons and likely announce another accord with Kiribati,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund in the US.
China has reportedly drawn up plans to upgrade a World War II-era airstrip and bridge on one of Kiribati’s remote islands, according to the news agency Reuters, which lies just 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) from the US state of Hawaii.
Only the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Palau have remained official allies of Taiwan in the Pacific region, but they could potentially be swayed by the prospect of Chinese investment.
John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at Australian National University, said China may be banking on the government transition in Canberra and other geopolitical distractions.
“My sense that the [Chinese] government will be eager to lock in arrangements in the Pacific, in Solomon Islands and elsewhere, as soon as possible,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I suspect that Wang Yi will be banking on having a ‘honeymoon’ period during which they can consolidate their gains and extract additional concessions in the Pacific before the new government is ready to respond,” he also said.