Biden’s failure to include a Pacific Islands nation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework may prove to be a shocking oversight
NOOSA - The Chinese and Australian foreign ministers are arriving in the Pacific Islands today on separate missions to reinforce their influence in the region.
And, as US president Joe Biden announced the creation of an Asia-Pacific economic bloc to counter China’s dominance, China proposed to 10 Pacific Island countries that they enter into a cooperation agreement covering policing, security and data communications.
Biden’s proposed 12 nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework does not include any Pacific Islands nations, leaving the impression that dealing with them will be left to Australia and New Zealand, which were both invited to join IPEF.
So far the Pacific Islands countries, including Papua New Guinea, have not reacted publicly to the proposed IPEF bloc but one, Federated States of Micronesia, said the China deal should be rejected.
President David Panuelo, whose country is closely aligned with the US, said he feared it could spark a new Cold War between China and the West.
That Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Australian foreign minister Penny Wong both arrive in the Pacific today shows that the contest for influence and dominance has stepped up a notch.
But Biden’s failure to include any Pacific Islands nation in IPEF may prove to be a shocking oversight.
A wiser US might have invited Papua New Guinea to join the bloc as a signal that the Pacific Islands should be partners in the Asia-Pacific economy not mere recipients of development aid
PNG, a nation of nine million people, strategically located between the south-west Pacific and south-east Asia, and along with Fiji a regional leader, is regarded as a bulwark to tone down China’s steady expansion into the Pacific Islands.
Biden’s decision is not only a snub that may carry a heavy price tab for the West, is a missed opportunity to build a high level multilateral alternative to Beijing’s presence in the region.
The decision is even more perplexing when three countries much smaller than PNG, Singapore, New Zealand and Brunei were invited to join the economic alliance.
Perhaps, given that Wong is more attuned the needs and aspirations of the Pacific Islands, we may see PNG offered a place at the IPEF table.
Wong is in Fiji today to meet prime minister Frank Bainimarama and her Chinese counterpart Wang begins his eight-nation tour of the region terminating with a meeting in Fiji next week.
Wong has said that over the next six weeks she will visit a dozen countries in the region
“China has made its intentions clear [but] so too are the intentions of the new Australian government,” Wong said yesterday, adding that there was much work required to recover Australia’s status in the Pacific after what she called a “lost decade” of Coalition rule.
Meanwhile, Bainimarama has publicly welcomed the election of the Albanese government.
He tweeted yesterday that “of your many promises to support the Pacific, none is more welcome than your plan to put the climate first”.