Australia needs a Catch-Up not a Step-Up in its relationship with the Pacific Islands, and this week started on the long diplomatic journey
NOOSA – China is now seeking to build upon its existing diplomatic relations with 10 Pacific Islands countries with what it terms ‘a comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development’.
It has been working towards this wider alliance since November 2014, when President Xi Jinping met in Fiji with the Pacific Islands states with which it had diplomatic relations.
The concept was more clearly defined in November 2018 when, during the APEC summit in Port Moresby, Xi held a group meeting with Pacific Islands leaders which further elevated the strategic relationship.
Since then there have been frequent high level contacts, with the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Cook Islands and Niue all visiting China and, according to China, “exchanges and cooperation between government agencies, legislatures and political parties have flourished”.
A senior PNG government minister told me recently that in recent years there have been many more PNG ministerial visits to Beijing than to Canberra.
When I asked him to put a figure on it, he estimated that there were three or four times more exchanges with China.
Progress in building relationships has been gradual, steady and consistent since 1989, when China became an official ‘Dialogue Partner’ of the Pacific Island Forum.
Since then, China has established the China-Pacific Islands Forum Cooperation Fund (2000), joined the Pacific Tourism Organisation (2004), established the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum (2006) and initiated the China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (2021).
In addition to these and other high level meetings it has maintained a steady flow of conferences and official visits across a wide range of areas including fisheries, agriculture, climate action, poverty reduction, development cooperation, health, education, law enforcement and defence.
And yesterday, in a visit unprecedented by any previous engagement with the Pacific Islands, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and his 20-person team arrived in Solomon Islands beginning a 10-day round of meetings that will also take him to Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
“The trip - unprecedented for a Chinese envoy - reveals not only how seriously Beijing is taking its Pacific ambitions but also offers a sharp tactical contrast between China and the western foes it claims are attempting to contain it,” wrote Eryk Bagshaw in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighting that China’s emphasis on bilateral relationships has strengthened its hand in the Pacific Islands.
China’s view, as expressed in what it called a ‘Fact Sheet’ published as a full page in the PNG Post-Courier yesterday, is that it and Pacific Islands nations “are all developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region”
“Despite changes in the international landscape,” the Fact Sheet states, “the two sides have always been good friends treating each other with sincerity and mutual respect, good partners for common development and mutually beneficial cooperation, and good brothers of mutual understanding and mutual learning.”
In a section titled Prospects, the Fact Sheet says that with the world “in a period of turbulence and transformation….China and PICs need, more than ever, to strengthen unity, overcome difficulties together, deepen cooperation, and jointly create the future.
“Acting on the important consensus of our leaders, China stands ready to work with PICs to further promote high-level exchanges, cement political mutual trust, expand practical cooperation, and strengthen people-to-people ties, so as to build a closer China-Pacific Island Countries community with a shared future.”
These words have now been translated into a draft document, titled ‘China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision’, and a five-year action plan, ahead of a meeting of Pacific Islands foreign ministers and Wang Yi in Fiji on Monday.
The overall intent of the vision and plan is to “strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and non-traditional security”, according to China.
According to Reuters the draft plan outlines ministerial dialogue on law enforcement and police cooperation as well as pledging cooperation on data networks and for Pacific Islands to "take a balanced approach" on technological progress, economic development and national security.
It seems that, for the foreseeable future, everywhere Senator Wong goes in the Pacific Islands on Australia’s behalf, she will see China coming back.
Scott Morrison put much verbal weight into Australia’s so-called ‘Step-Up’ in the Pacific. In this, as in so many things, his execution never matched his rhetoric.
Australia needs a Catch-Up in the Pacific Islands, and this week – through Senator Wong – started on what will be a long diplomatic journey.