China eyes security pact in talks with Pacific islands in Fiji

China’s top diplomat holds talks with 10 Pacific nations in Fiji to discuss increasing security and economic ties.

Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna (R) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) pose for photographs during their meeting in Fiji's capital city of Suva.
Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna, right, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for photographs during their meeting in Suva, Fiji, on May 29, 2022 [Handout Pacific Islands Forum/AFP]

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is holding talks with his counterparts from 10 Pacific island nations in Fiji as part of a diplomatic tour that has stirred deep Western concern.

The meeting on Monday will discuss proposals for Beijing to radically increase its involvement in the security, economy and politics of the South Pacific.

With borders closed across the region because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most foreign ministers are attending the Fiji meeting by video link. In several Pacific countries, the foreign minister is also the prime minister.

Before Monday’s meeting, President Xi Jinping sent a message that China would be “a good brother” to the region and that they shared a “common destiny”, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

On the table is a confidential agreement – obtained by the AFP and Reuters news agencies – that would see China train local police, become involved in cybersecurity, expand political ties, conduct sensitive marine mapping and gain greater access to natural resources on land and in the water. As an enticement, Beijing is offering millions of dollars in financial assistance, the prospect of a China-Pacific Islands free trade agreement and access to China’s vast market of 1.4 billion people.

But the draft communique has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), according to a letter leaked last week. David Panuelo, president of FSM, wrote that his nation would argue that the communique be rejected because it “threatens regional stability”.

Speaking before Monday’s meeting, Robert Bohn Sikol, a former legislator in Vanuatu, said it is difficult to know how successful China will be in ramping up its influence as Pacific island nations are used to being courted by bigger powers.

“The South Pacific countries know how to play the aid game. Chinese money will be accepted, but often the South Pacific countries do not stay bought!” Bohn Sikol told Al Jazeera. “It will take more than one visit to change minds.”

He added, “The West needs to be concerned, but not frantic.”

The latest proposal from China comes weeks after it signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands that Australia and New Zealand fear could open the door to a Chinese military presence in the region.

Celsus Irokwato Talifilu, a political adviser to the premier of Solomon Islands’ Malaita province, said he is worried that China’s push for influence in the region.

“Overall, it is about whether the Pacific countries could manage themselves in light of these new proposals made by the Chinese,” Talifilu told Al Jazeera. “Otherwise, the Pacific will be Chinese in next decade or two.”

Western powers have also bristled over China’s moves, with the United States warning the Pacific Islands to be wary of “shadowy, vague deals with little transparency” with Beijing.

The new Australian government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has meanwhile made the Pacific Islands an early foreign policy priority to counter Beijing’s push, dispatching the foreign minister to Fiji with the message Australia would put new priority on the region’s biggest security challenge of climate change and announcing a new visa programme to allow Pacific island citizens to migrate.

Only Pacific nations that recognise China over Taiwan are attending Monday’s talks, including those Wang has already visited on his regional tour – Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji.

Palau, a Pacific nation that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, has also expressed concern over the proposed deals, with President Surangel Whipps urging his neighbours on Monday to “tread cautiously” and suggesting the agreement with China could risk peace and security in the region.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies