Eight years ago, Xi Jinping visited Fiji, offering Pacific Island nations a ride on “China’s express train of development.” Now, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is traveling through the region — including a stop in Fiji next week — and a lot has changed.
Infrastructure and industry built by China can be found in many capital cities. New Chinese embassies in Fiji and elsewhere point to diplomatic ambition, while a controversial security deal with the Solomon Islands has opened up the possibility of Chinese security forces and naval vessels using, as an outpost for force projection across the region, the country where John F. Kennedy fought in World War II.
Australia and the United States, along with officials in some Pacific Island nations, are increasingly concerned about Beijing’s efforts to gain influence and access to countries that have long played an important geostrategic role. What was once a slow-burning worry in Washington and Canberra has become more like a blaze of alarm.
Indeed, Penny Wong, Australia’s newly appointed foreign minister, flew straight to Fiji this week from the Quad meeting in Tokyo where American, Japanese, Indian and Australian leaders met to discuss how to contain China. In just her fourth day in office, she told Pacific leaders that their region would be a priority, along with their issues of concern — especially climate change.
“We will listen and we will hear you, your ideas about how we can face our shared challenges and achieve our shared aspirations together,” she said in a speech titled “A New Era in Australian Engagement in the Pacific.”
One reason for the increased attention is that China’s plans and strategy have become more obvious and visible, thanks to a series of leaked documents. First, a draft of the security deal with the Solomon Islands was shared online; then last week, a draft agreement that Beijing sent to 10 Pacific Island nations emerged in advance of Mr. Wang’s trip.
The documents, which I obtained and verified through trusted sources, show that China is hoping to move beyond bilateral agreements to a more ambitious regional approach. As Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, has pointed out, the documents also make clear that China now expects economic and security cooperation to go hand in hand. As is the case within China, politics and prosperity are increasingly inseparable.
What that means going forward will be closely watched, in Canberra, Wellington, Washington, Beijing and beyond.
But one thing to remember, which can be easy to overlook, is that geopolitics is far from the only element that demands greater scrutiny. Contests between great powers tend to deliver serious consequences to smaller countries — something I learned covering Latin America, where America’s opposition to communism during the Cold War led to the toppling of governments in Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere.
Democracy is fragile. Power is a blunt instrument. And while increased attention from China or the United States can mean promises of investment, development and training opportunities, it can also mean greater pressure to comply with superpower demands, and more opportunities for unscrupulous leaders to avoid accountability.
One small example that caught my eye: In the Solomons this week, the local media association boycotted a planned news conference because only one local reporter, selected by the government, would be allowed to ask one question about the Chinese foreign minister’s visit.
“How ridiculous is that?” said Georgina Kekea, president of the association. “Journalists should be allowed to do their job without fear of favor.”
Amen to that.
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