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King Tupou VI of Tonga (third from right) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (third from left) at the Royal Palace Nuku’alofa on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

China put the Pacific Islands on the geopolitical map. What comes next?

  • Beijing did not get the endorsement of the regional security deal it was hoping for but ‘it’s not the end of China in the Pacific’, analyst says
  • While some nations are wary of being drawn into big power politics, they might still seek to reduce ties with former colonial powers, observers say

Ten days, seven Pacific island nations and the first visit to the region by a senior Chinese official in more than two years.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to what has been seen as a diplomatic backwater put the resources-rich and strategically significant Pacific Islands squarely on the geopolitical map.

The centrepiece of the trip was the discussion of a proposed security deal between Wang and the foreign ministers of 10 Pacific island nations.

China failed to secure endorsement for the pact from the ministers but the renewed Chinese interest in the region has drawn attention from traditional Pacific players such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

So far, the Pacific Islands have refused to be drawn into a geopolitical game but might seek to reduce ties with former colonial powers by engaging with more countries, including China, regional observers say.


China’s proposed security deal with Pacific islands falls short as Wang Yi tours region

China’s proposed security deal with Pacific islands falls short as Wang Yi tours region

Wang’s trip took him to Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, and included virtual talks with his counterparts from the Cook Islands and Micronesia.

In the midst of that activity, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong landed in Samoa for her second trip to the region in just 10 days after taking office, offering a new coastguard patrol boat next year to replace one that ran aground.
The region was also the focus of the discussion between US President Joe Biden and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, with Biden saying the two sides “have more work to do in those Pacific islands”.

“More diplomatic waves” could follow, according to Henry Ivarature, a Pacific Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, who has worked extensively in the islands.

“The Pacific, in my experience of working in the region, has never witnessed the scale [of what] China’s foreign minister has done. Neither have the Pacific traditional partners ever undertaken such an extensive tour of the Pacific,” Ivarature said.


“China’s failure to secure a regional agreement, I think, only strengthens its resolve to present a more ‘palatable’ proposal.

“China has done what Australia and New Zealand have never done. The Pacific can expect more diplomatic waves from China, Australia, New Zealand and even the USA.”

The China-Solomon Islands security pact and why it has raised alarm

Yu Lei, chief research fellow at Liaocheng University’s Research Centre for Pacific Island Countries in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, said the Pacific islands might also seek to diversify their ties beyond the former colonial powers to expand their economies.


The Pacific island nations were ruled by colonial powers in Europe, the US and Japan as well as regional powers such as Australia and New Zealand until the 1960s, when, one by one, they started to win independence.

“Engaging with more countries could mean a counterbalance with their ties with former colonial powers and an intensifying competition, in a healthy way, could also boost local economies of the Pacific Islands,” Yu said.

Pacific island states mull China security deal as Beijing tries to deepen ties

At the same time, some Pacific nations are wary of being drawn into the competition.


Beijing did not say why regional leaders rejected the security deal but several leaders have expressed concerns over geopolitical power play.

“The Pacific needs genuine partners, not superpowers that are super-focused on power,” Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tweeted after talks with Wang in Suva.

Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa, who was among the island nation leaders who called for a delay, said major decisions on the region should go through the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the region’s premier political body.


“We have not made a decision as we did not have enough time to look at it,” Samoan news service Talamua quoted Fiame as saying.

Yu said it was “kind of expected” that the security pact would not be endorsed at the meeting.

“It is a regional deal and maybe some island nations still have some doubts but I think there would be some follow-up discussions, for example, in a bilateral way,” he said.


Chinese foreign minister starts Pacific tour, offering security and free trade pacts

Chinese foreign minister starts Pacific tour, offering security and free trade pacts

Ivarature, who is from Papua New Guinea, said the gathering was a lesson for Beijing on the need to learn more about the region, with different languages and cultures among Micronesians, Polynesians and Melanesians.

“A one-size-fits-all agreement ignores the diversity and complexity of the Pacific states … These are independent sovereign states with specific development challenges. China succeeded at a bilateral level because each state knows what they want.”

It was also wrong to discuss a regional proposal at a meeting with 10 Pacific Island states, he added.

“Regional issues and proposals are dealt with at the Pacific Islands Forum … China’s proposal is regional. It must take this to the PIF,” he said, adding that there could also be concerns over a locked-in proposal that appeared to be forceful.

But Ivarature said Chinese officials had interacted with Pacific leaders on the trip and “have heard their needs”.

“They will use the information to reframe a new proposal. The Pacific sees China as a development partner,” he said.

“The Pacific states are sovereign states and will continue to engage with China as they have with Australia, New Zealand and others. It’s not the end of China in the Pacific.”

Chinese investments boost Fiji ties

There was also some common ground between China and the Pacific Islands on the Quad, an informal security partnership between the US, Australia, India and Japan that Beijing sees as part of Washington-led alliance network to counter its influence in the region.

“[The islands] reject it because they are not consulted by Australia, USA, etc,” Ivarature said.

“[They] define their region as the ‘Blue Pacific’ and reject being dragged into the Indo-Pacific framing.”

Yu said there were mutual needs between China and the Pacific Islands.

“The 14 countries in the Pacific Islands region represent 14 votes and diplomatically we need their support because of the Taiwan issue, and there’s great potential in economic cooperation as the islands control an exclusive economic zone of over 30 million sq km (11.6 million square miles),” he said.