ABC | 31 May 2022
China to continue pushing for Pacific Island nations to sign regional trade and security agreement
By Stephen Dziedzic
- China’s Foreign Ministry has played down the significance of the setback
- A number of Pacific Island leaders have raised concerns about both the substance of the pact and China’s approach
- Samoa’s Prime Minister has suggested the agreement could be discussed at the next Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting
China’s government says it remains confident it can strike a sweeping trade and security agreement with 10 Pacific Island states despite being forced to shelve its proposed agreement.
Beijing has since released a position paper on the Pacific, but several key components of the draft deal — including free trade, joint police efforts and cybersecurity measures — are omitted from the document.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with 10 Pacific counterparts on Monday, less than a week after a copy of the Common Development Vision agreement was leaked to the press.
The proposal stoked controversy among Pacific Island nations, with Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo warning it could stoke geopolitical confrontations in the region and undermine the sovereignty of Pacific countries.
On Monday, China’s ambassador to Fiji confirmed some Pacific nations had "concerns" about some "issues" in the agreement and said Beijing would try to seek consensus from them.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian played down the significance of the pause when asked about it by journalists in Beijing.
"As for the joint document you mentioned, it involves an ongoing process of discussion," he said.
"Not every meeting has to issue a joint document.
"At the foreign ministers’ meeting this time, all parties reached new consensus on this, making an important step towards reaching the final agreement.
Separately, the state-owned tabloid Global Times appeared to take aim at Mr Panuelo for blocking the agreement, saying "a few people" in the Pacific "under the pressure and coercion of the US and former coloniser may be willing to serve American interests at the cost of their national and people’s interests".
However, an increasing number of Pacific Island leaders have now raised concerns about both the substance of the pact, and the way China seemingly tried to push through the agreement ahead of Mr Wang’s meeting on Monday.
Samoa’s Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, suggested during a press conference on Monday that her country had been rushed by China, saying: "We have not made a decision [about the agreement] as we did not have enough time to look at it."
Diplomatic sources told the ABC that Fiji had indicated to China ahead of the meeting it would not be able to secure an agreement because some Pacific Island nations had reservations about its impact.
But they also stressed that China had not abandoned the pact and Beijing would now likely redouble efforts to convince Pacific Island nations to sign it.
Pacific nations walk away from region-wide trade and security deal with China
Anna Powles from Massey University said while Chinese officials had adopted the "language" of consensus, they "clearly haven’t put it into practice so far".
"The outcome shows that there was clear resistance to the deal on the part of Pacific leaders due to concerns about substance and the process by which Beijing sought to have it adopted," Dr Powles told the ABC.
"Adopting consensus in the current environment is going to be challenging given publicly stated concerns from FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) and Palau as well as Niue."
The Samoan leader also suggested the issue could be raised at the next Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting, which is likely to be held in July.
Dr Powles said discussing the issue at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) would be "challenging" because four PIF nations still recognised Taiwan rather than China.
"Taking the deal to the PIF may be an attempt to derail it completely," she said.
China’s position paper makes no mention of free trade or joint policing
After the multi-country deal was shelved, China’s ambassador to Fiji signalled Beijing would release a "position paper" on the Pacific.
On Tuesday, China’s Embassy in the US published the 15-point statement, but the paper made no mention of free trade or joint policing, and only a fleeting reference to cybersecurity cooperation, which were key features of the leaked draft deal.
There was scant reference to climate change action — which Pacific leaders have repeatedly flagged is a key concern and existential threat to their low-lying countries.
"Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas," Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in a joint press conference with Mr Wang on Monday.
The paper proposed appointing a Chinese government special envoy for Pacific Island Countries affairs, as well as encouraging and supporting airlines to launch flights between China and Pacific countries when COVID-19 is under control.
It called for respecting the "independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pacific Island countries, support Pacific Island countries in independently choosing development paths suited to their national conditions, adhere to non-interference in internal affairs".
"Appreciate that Pacific Island countries firmly abide by the one-China principle, and understand and support China’s core interests and major concerns," the paper read.
On security, it referred to upholding the "international non-proliferation regime with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as its cornerstone and support the development of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone", as well as combating transnational crime, including cyber-crime, and jointly tackling "non-traditional security threats".
It proposed injecting an additional $US2 million ($2.7 million) into a COVID-19 fund, sending Chinese medical teams to Pacific countries, including Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
It also suggested holding seminars on agriculture, trade, technology, disaster mitigation, governance, as well as training diplomats, providing 2,500 government scholarships, and establishing a poverty reduction centre.
The paper referenced supporting "willing institutions" to establish Confucius Institutes and classrooms with China, as well as exploring cultural cooperation.