Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and counterparts in 10 Pacific Island nations failed to reach consensus at talks on a sweeping security and trade deal amid concerns the proposal could “threaten regional stability”.
Following Monday’s virtual talks, Wang, who was in Fiji, sought to reassure the Pacific nations about China’s aims in the region, saying Beijing has also long championed developing nations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
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“Don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous,” he said. “Because the common development and prosperity of China and all the other developing countries would only mean great harmony, greater justice and greater progress of the whole world.”
The top diplomat’s visit to Fiji is part of a diplomatic tour aimed at radically increasing China’s involvement in the security, economy and politics of the South Pacific.
A draft communique and five-year action plan that China sent to the invited nations ahead of the meeting showed it was seeking to 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.
At an unusual news conference afterward, Wang and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama spoke for about 30 minutes and then abruptly left the stage as reporters tried to shout out questions. That left many details of what transpired at the meeting undisclosed. But it was clear the nations had not endorsed China’s plan.
“As always, we put consensus first among our countries throughout any discussion on new regional agreements,” Bainimarama said.
“Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job is being lost to the pandemic, or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities.”
The proposed China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision also proposes a free trade area, and support for action on climate change and health.
But the draft communique prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), according to a letter leaked last week.
David Panuelo, president of FSM, called it “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes”, and said it “threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst”.
Benjamin Herscovitch, from Australian National University, told Al Jazeera it is probably not the last time such a proposed deal between Beijing and Pacific Island countries will be brought up by Beijing.
“China is expected to ramp up its diplomatic, commercial, economic, logistical and people to people efforts to get this kind of a deal,” he said.
Herscovitch said the South Pacific, in particular, is not a primary area of geostrategic concern for China compared to South China Sea and Southeast Asia. “However, the fact that China is devoting resources to this region speaks to Beijing’s global ambitions,” he said.
‘Geopolitical point scoring’
After Monday’s meeting in Fiji, which included Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Niue, Wang said the nations had agreed on five areas of cooperation, but further discussions were needed to shape more consensus.
The five areas he listed included economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, and new centres for agriculture and disaster, but did not include security.
“China will release its own position paper on our own positions and propositions and cooperation proposals with Pacific island countries, and going forward we will continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus on cooperation,” he told reporters.
Taking questions after Wang’s briefing, China’s ambassador to Fiji, Qian Bo, said participants had agreed to discuss the draft communique and the five-year plan “until we have reached an agreement”.
“There has been general support from the 10 countries with which we have diplomatic relations, but of course there are some concerns on some specific issues.”
While China may have fallen short on its plans for a grand multilateral agreement, it has been signing smaller bilateral agreements with the Pacific nations every day during Wang’s tour.
The Chinese foreign minister began his tour on Thursday in the Solomon Islands, where he signed a deal on civil air transport. The two nations had previously also inked a security deal that Australia and United States worry could result in a Chinese military presence in the region.
On Friday, Wang visited Kiribati, where a key fishing ground the size of California is at stake. Kiribati’s government said afterwards the two nations had signed 10 agreements ranging from cooperating on economic goals to building a specific bridge.
And in Samoa on Saturday, Wang signed an agreement to build a police fingerprint laboratory to complement a China-funded police training academy.
The Chinese foreign minister heads next to the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga for a two-day visit on Tuesday.
Afterwards, he will also visit Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
Speaking ahead of 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.”
In a written address to the meeting, China’s President Xi Jinping said China will always be a good friend of Pacific Island countries no matter how the international situation changes, China’s state-owned CCTV reported.