Washington, DC – China is bristling at the Quad since the recent Tokyo summit of the four nations finalized a comprehensive action plan to neutralize Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Adding to Beijing’s frustration is its failure this week to persuade a group of 10 nations of the South Pacific to sign an agreement on security and economic cooperation with China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to Fiji in person but could not make any progress in getting their acceptance for his China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision. Foreign ministers from 10 Pacific island nations, including Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Samoa, held a meeting with Wang but did not sign the Chinese deal.
Some countries expressed concern about the move. The Vision deal proposed that China would “train Pacific island 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.”
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told the media that consensus is not easy. “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.”
If they agreed, the Pacific nations would, in turn, be offered “millions of dollars in financial assistance, the prospect of a potentially lucrative China-Pacific islands free trade agreement and access to China’s vast market of 1.4 billion people”.
The President of Federated States of Micronesia was apprehensive about the deal and said it is “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes” and “threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst.”
A rebuffed Wang told the island nations: “… don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous”, adding that he will “continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus on cooperation.”
The media quoted the Chinese ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo, as saying: “There has been general support from the 10 countries. But of course, there are some concerns on some specific issues and we have agreed that these two documents will be discussed afterwards until we have reached an agreement.”
Underlining the importance of China’s proposal to the Pacific island nations, President Xi Jinping wrote a personal letter to their heads of government, which was read at the foreign ministers’ meeting.
President Xi said in recent years, the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Pacific island countries “features mutual respect and common development” and “has made steady progress and yielded fruitful results, setting a good example for South-South cooperation.”
Allaying the island nation’s fears that China may use their relations to unduly influence them, Xi said, “China stays committed to equality of all countries regardless of size, and remains guided by the principle of pursuing the greater good and shared interests and the principle of sincerity, real results, amity and good faith in developing friendly ties with Pacific island countries.”
He even gave them a personal assurance: “No matter how the international landscape may evolve, China will always be a good friend that shares the same ideal and follows the same path, a good brother going through thick and thin as well as a good partner forging ahead side by side of Pacific island countries.” The Pacific island nations are still wary of him.
China is currently trying to ramp up its South Pacific activities to challenge the Quad’s efforts to influence the Indo-Pacific region. The entire Pacific region is suddenly becoming the latest arena for the war of attrition between the United States and China.
With India, Japan, and Australia firmly by its side, the US has begun to confront China’s excesses in the region, including its threatening military exercises near Taiwan. The region is important to both sides because it hosts some of the most critical sea routes carrying oil and other essential goods of trade.
The small nations that dot the Pacific find themselves caught in the middle of this competition between the west and China to project their influence over the oceanic region. They do not want to be thrust to the center of a geopolitical conflict between the two sides.
China is more wary of the Quad than the nations are of Beijing, because of the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that would have the presence of 13 regional players. US President Joe Biden is also wooing the ASEAN nations who have a significant say in the region’s politics. And President Biden personally met with ASEAN leaders in Washington at the ASEAN Summit.
As China prepares for the 20th Party Congress to give a third term of power to President Xi, the Communist Party of China does not want the Quad issue hanging over its head. However, its attempt to do a counter-balancing act by seeking to claim influence over the South Pacific did not work out.
Pia Sherman is a freelance writer. Views expressed are solely of the author.