The Pacific Islands have received a number of recent visits from both the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and the Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. What is this all about?
The visits essentially boil down to a battle for influence in the region, and both have proposed some important markers for the way they hope to conduct engagement. The Pacific holds a great deal of geopolitical significance. It also faces serious vulnerability due to the devastating impacts of climate change and the developmental challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minister Wang Yi has undertaken a lengthy tour of the Pacific, where several bilateral agreements have been signed with Pacific countries. In the wake of this, Minister Penny Wong has flown back for the second time to meet with Pacific leaders in Samoa and Tonga, hopeful that diplomacy can alleviate China’s influence in the region.
Australia refers to the Pacific as a ‘neighbour’, which is true both geographically, and diplomatically. Australia has long been the region’s largest development partner. Partnership with the Pacific is one of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities, highlighted by The Pacific Step Up. Australia made a record contribution of $1.44 billion in development assistance to the Pacific in 2020-21, among other commitments. But the country is now being challenged for influence in the region, and strategically so.
A Summary of Events
The Chinese Foreign Minister has paid a visit to the Pacific, the first Foreign Minister visit since 2006. There is no doubt that China is hoping to solidify and increase its influence in the Pacific, evidenced by a new multilateral approach. Engagement is focused on economic, strategic, and security links in the Pacific.
In the recent visit, China has been seeking to secure a regional trade and security agreement with 10 Pacific countries. Discussion about the multilateral agreement took place during a high-level meeting between Minister Yi and his counterparts, and the 10 Pacific nations in Fiji. The agreement detailed proposals of a COVID-19 recovery fund, medical assistance, agricultural and trade training, as well as diplomatic training, providing 2,500 government scholarships, among other development proposals.
Despite the significance of the agreement on the table, Pacific leaders have uniformly decided not to sign it due to concerns arising from several the Pacific nations. The main concerns are related to the vagueness of the agreement and the rushed nature of its introduction. For such a large agreement, it is reportedly too broad and undetailed. For some Pacific nations, this has led to uncertainty around what China really wants to offer the Pacific and what motives are behind it.
The President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), David Panuelo, showed particular resistance towards the agreement. President Panuelo wrote a letter to the Pacific leaders stating his fears that the regional agreement could spark a new “Cold War” between China and the West if it was to be accepted. He is one of a few nations that are unsure about China’s involvement in the Pacific.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was warm towards the regional agreement, stating “as always, we put consensus first among our countries throughout any discussion on new regional agreements… Fiji will continue to seek fertile ground for our bilateral relationship” which Fiji has since done. One area he sought a stronger commitment from China on was climate action, stating “Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas,” he said.
Even with the fall through of the regional agreement, China has been successful in signing over a dozen other bilateral agreements with Pacific countries. The most recent agreement between China and Tonga involved the commitment of China’s resources to disaster management agencies, a police laboratory and customs inspection equipment.
In summarising the visit, Minister Yi stated that “for Pacific Island countries, China is not a newcomer but an old friend with long-standing friendships. And fast progress of relations between China and Pacific Island countries does not come out of thin air” hinting at continued efforts in deepening engagement in the region.
Acutely aware of the increased interest presented by China, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has visited the Pacific for the second time, as one of her first moves as newly elected Foreign Minister. Minister Wong stated that Australia’s intentions are to help build a “stronger Pacific family” through security and defence. It is evident that Australia is trying, through its own methods, to intensify its own engagement in the region, and mitigate Chinese influence.
Australia’s strength in development and diplomatic relations has traditionally been the exercise of soft power, which is seen in Australia’s most recent engagement with the Pacific. In the Minister’s address to Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, she highlighted Australia’s soft power approach by saying “It’s up to the countries of the region to make choices for their people…The security of the Pacific is the responsibility of the Pacific family, of which Australia is a part.”
In a meeting with Pacific leaders, Minister Wong made a clear statement that Australia’s engagement with the Pacific will be determined by the needs presented by Pacific countries themselves, not what Australia believes is best for the region- “We are not a government or a country that wants to come in and tell you what you should do… We see it in our interests and part of our responsibility as a member of the Pacific family to work with you and that’s the approach we’ll take.”
In a separate address, the Minister highlighted the main points of Australia’s agenda for engagement in the Pacific. These priorities relate to the security and wellbeing of the Pacific, most importantly being the climate crisis, stating “I acknowledge and understand that, under past governments, Australia has neglected its responsibility to act on climate… This is a different Australian government and a different Australia…and we will stand shoulder to shoulder with you, our Pacific family, in response”
Other priorities were increased Pandemic recovery assistance, deepened defence and maritime cooperation, and working with the Pacific leaders to increase opportunities for Pacific workers in Australia.
In Minister Wong’s meeting with Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, a new eight-year partnership between Australia and Samoa was struck, which seeks to greater respond to climate change, and improve human development and social inclusion in the Pacific Island nation.
In her meeting with Tongan Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku and Tonga’s foreign minister Fekita ‘Utoikamanu, Minister Wong engaged in discussion about climate change, visa issues, and reconstruction.
You can hear a more detailed explanation of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific here-
Nature of Aid and Partnerships
Aid is at the forefront of discussions in both China and Australia’s engagement in the Pacific. The word has been used heavily throughout all recent discussions but there are distinctive differences between the meaning it carries for both parties. For China, Aid commitments in the Pacific come in the form of security, trade, and larger economic investment. It comes more in the form of external agreements, rather than partnerships, meaning that it is a pre-prepared, predetermined agreement that China comes ready to present. External agreements in this context mean that there is little to no input required from Pacific nations in the forming of the agreement, rather just a response to it.
The regional agreement proposed by China to the 10 Pacific nations represented a more hard power approach to Aid, using issues like security, trade, and economic opportunities, in an attempt to gain influence. For Pacific nations it presents large opportunities, that address the big developmental issues and needs in the region. But Australia argues that it is too large of an offer and is setting up the region for a loss.
In contrast, Australia continues to rely on a soft power approach in its Aid efforts. The Government promotes the fact that Aid will be delivered based on the needs presented to them by Pacific leaders themselves. It focuses more on partnership, rather than external agreements, stemming from Australia longstanding ‘neighbour-like’ ties with the region. The Australian Government acknowledges that “how we engage [with the Pacific] is just as important as what we do”. The Australian Government offers Aid in the form of financial assistance, policy, immigration opportunities, and diplomatic support.
The appeal with China’s hard power approach is that many Pacific nations want to see developmental progress and see it fast. It is argued by some leaders that Australia has been too slow and missed the opportunity to partner with the Pacific. In contrast, some leaders find the softer, slower, and more transparent approach taken by Australia more appealing.
The Australian Government admits they have acted too slow in the past, and this current approach may be beneficial for Pacific self-determination if Australia really does step up to the plate before it is too late.
Micah Australia acknowledges the significance of the Pacific region and hold firmly to the belief that Pacific people must be allowed to determine their own future, and the hope that they can have a voice in shaping the geopolitics of aid and development in our region. We will continue in our best efforts to advocate for and to help facilitate this.