China has unveiled plans to significantly expand security and economic co-operation with the South Pacific, in a move that a regional leader warned was an open attempt to bring it to the “Beijing axis”.
A draft of a broad agreement and a five-year plan, a copy of which was obtained by LFS on Wednesday, presents the possibility of concluding a regional free trade agreement and another on security co-operation.
The two agreements will be discussed during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to countries in the Pacific region, starting on Thursday.
The agreements will offer $ 10 million worth of Chinese aid to 10 small island countries and the possibility of a China-Pacific Free Trade Agreement entering the lucrative market for China’s 1.4 billion people.
In return, Beijing will train local police, intervene in internal cyber security, and expand political ties.
It will also conduct sensitive marine surveys and have greater access to local natural resources.
It is believed that the “Vision of Inclusive Development” will be submitted for approval during the meeting scheduled in Fiji between Wang and the foreign ministers of the countries of the region on May 30.
The South Pacific region is the scene of competition between China and the United States, which has been a major power in the region over the past century.
Beijing has sought to increase its military, political and economic presence in the South Pacific, but so far has made only limited and uneven progress.
If he agrees, the plan would represent a change and make things easier from deploying Chinese police to visits by Chinese “technical teams”.
It will increase flights between China and the Pacific Islands, and Beijing will appoint a regional envoy, provide training for young diplomats from the Pacific region, and provide 2,500 government “scholarships.”
But it has already alerted regional capitals.
control the area
In a letter to his Pacific leaders, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, warned that the agreements seemed “attractive” at first glance, but would allow China to “enter and control our region”.
Describing the proposals as “insincere”, Panuelo said they would “ensure China has influence over the government” and “economic control” of key sectors by allowing “broad control” of phone calls and emails.
He noted that “it reflects China’s intention to shift its allegiance to the Pacific region towards it” and that the result would be “a division in regional peace, security and stability”.
Micronesia is among Washington’s closest allies in the region.
But other leaders in the region may see the Chinese proposal as profitable or useful.
“We are concerned that these agreements will be negotiated through a hasty and obscure process,” State Department spokeswoman Ned Price told reporters.
Noting that Pacific countries are responsible for their own decisions, Price said China “follows a model of delivering dark and obscure agreements with little transparency or regional consultation.”
There is no doubt that the document will cause concern in Washington, Canberra and Wellington, as decision-makers are still under pressure from leaks that revealed the Solomon Islands secretly negotiated a security deal with Beijing.
A draft agreement included a provision allowing the deployment of Chinese naval forces in the country, which is located less than 2,000 km from Australia.
It also prohibits the Solomon Islands from publicly disclosing the contents of the agreement without China’s permission.
The news of the deal, which the United States and its allies fear would result in a Chinese military presence in the region, prompted stakeholders to make contacts and conduct diplomatic tours to limit the possibility of its implementation.
The key elements of the Solomon Islands agreement could be extended to nine other small Pacific states under Beijing’s latest proposal.
For Washington and its allies, the presence of Chinese forces in the South Pacific would put an end to decades of efforts to contain Beijing within the “first chain of the island.”
It may also require a repositioning of US forces.
A sign of the seriousness of the treatment of the South Pacific region, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong will visit Fiji on Thursday, her first foreign visit since taking office just days ago.
On Wednesday, New Zealand’s foreign minister held talks with her Solomon Islands counterpart and received assurances that “the agreement will not lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base”.
But there is still widespread concern.
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Krettenbrink recently criticized the “total lack of transparency” in the China-Solomon Islands agreement.
“We know that (China) is looking to create a stronger logistics infrastructure and overseas base that would allow the People’s Liberation Army to design and maintain military power further,” he said.
For Beijing, access to a base or even a port would challenge American hegemony in the region and soften what it sees as a siege from the West.
Chinese Minister Wang is expected to arrive in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, on Thursday, at the start of a long regional tour involving eight countries.
On his tour until June 4, the foreign minister will also stop in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Kiribati and Samoa, as well as make video-calls with the leaders of Micronesia and the Cook Islands, New Zealand’s autonomous community. .
Journalists in the Solomon Islands threatened to boycott the coverage after the “joint press conference” scheduled for Thursday evening, which aims to ask questions only from the state media.