Western powers sound alarm on China plan for South Pacific

Published May 27, 2022
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (L) has defended the security pact with China despite Western governments' fears. —AFP
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (L) has defended the security pact with China despite Western governments' fears. —AFP

HONIARA: Western powers sounded the alarm on Thursday over leaked plans to dramatically expand China’s security and economic reach in the South Pacific, in what one regional leader called a thinly veiled effort to lock island states into “Beijing’s orbit”.

If approved by Pacific island nations, the wide-ranging draft agreement and a five-year plan would give China a larger security footprint in a region seen as crucial to the interests of the United States and its allies.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected Western criticism of Beijing’s deepening engagement in the Pacific as he launched an eight-nation tour to present the potentially lucrative offer.

“China’s cooperation with Pacific Island countries does not target any country,” he said in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara, while warning other countries not to interfere.

“All the Pacific island countries are entitled to make their own choice instead of being just mere followers of others,” he told journalists.

The Chinese package would offer 10 small island states millions of dollars in assistance, the prospect of a China-Pacific Islands free trade agreement and access to China’s vast market of 1.4 billion people.

It would also give China the chance to train local police, become involved in local cybersecurity, expand political ties, conduct sensitive marine mapping and gain greater access to natural resources.

The “comprehensive development vision” is believed to be up for approval when Wang meets regional foreign ministers on Monday in Fiji.

“This is China seeking to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said.

Australia “needs to respond”, he said, outlining a “step-up” in Pacific engagement with extra money for defence training, maritime security and infrastructure to combat the effects of climate change.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong flew to Fiji on the same day her Chinese counterpart began his Pacific tour.

Under the new Australian government there would be no more “disrespecting” Pacific nations or “ignoring” their calls to act on climate change, she said in the capital Suva.

In a barb seemingly directed at Beijing, she added: “We don’t seek to create unsustainable debt levels.” New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the region had no need for Beijing’s security arrangements.

“We are very strongly of the view that we have, within the Pacific, the means and ability to respond to any security challenges that exist, and New Zealand is willing to do that,” she said after a meeting with US senators in Washington.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price warned the countries in question to be wary of “shadowy” agreements with China.

The Chinese plan, if approved, would represent a significant change, facilitating the deployment of Chinese police and increased flights between China and the Pacific Islands.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2022

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