During the second world war, some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific took place as the Allies pushed Japanese forces back in a “leapfrogging” campaign across the islands that dot the ocean north-east of Australia. Now America and its allies are scrambling to defend their hold on the region against an island-hopping diplomatic offensive from China that they fear could lead to a military presence. But China is facing not just Allied resistance. Many Paciﬁc-island countries want more done to address local needs—especially climate action—and are wary of being sucked into a global geopolitical contest.
That contest escalated dramatically in April when China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands. According to a leaked draft, it would allow Chinese ships to visit and Chinese security forces to deploy there (if invited). On May 26th China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, began an unprecedented eight-country tour of the region (see map), seeking other agreements touching on security. The trip has reaped some fruit. As well as various economic deals, Mr Wang inked one in Samoa on building a police fingerprint-laboratory and others in Tonga to provide a police lab and customs-inspection equipment.
But he failed to persuade ten countries in the Pacific to sign a regional agreement encompassing trade and security at a virtual summit on May 30th. Mr Wang indicated afterwards that he would continue to push for the deal. “Don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous,” he told participants. Later China published its proposals, including scholarships, training and medical assistance, but excluding those on security that had put off some states.
China may yet manage to secure some version of the deal. Many countries in the region have close ties to America, Australia and New Zealand—but feel neglected by them. They see China as a critical source of trade, aid and investment that can help their economies recover from covid-19. Even so, some in the region have deep concerns about China’s efforts to link security with economic engagement and about its proposals to co-operate on cyber-security, policing and data networks.
Most vociferous was the response from David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia (fsm). In a leaked letter to Pacific countries, he said the deal could allow China to conduct mass surveillance in the region and trigger “a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst” if China were to attack Taiwan. His opposition was perhaps expected: America handles fsm’s defence by agreement.
Resistance to Mr Wang’s efforts elsewhere may also be linked to diplomatic manoeuvres by America and its allies. Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said on May 28th that he has a “comprehensive plan” for the Pacific, including a boost in aid and re-engagement on climate change. Two days earlier his foreign minister, Penny Wong, rushed to Fiji and promised that Australian partnership “won’t come with strings attached”. Ms Wong visited Samoa on June 2nd, signing an eight-year development partnership, before heading to Tonga.
America, meanwhile, said Fiji would join a new American-led pact, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. And on May 31st President Joe Biden and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, met in Washington and pledged to help Pacific islands with infrastructure and security.
Even so, the pushback against China is motivated not just by the concerns of America and its allies. Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, welcomed Mr Wang but sought a stronger commitment on climate action. “Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas,” said Mr Bainimarama. Samoa’s prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, seemed frustrated at the rush to sign China’s deal, saying it should be discussed by the Pacific Islands Forum, which includes Australia, New Zealand and four countries with diplomatic ties to Taiwan. According to Samoan media, her explanation for not signing was simple: “We did not have enough time to look at it.” ■