The breakdown of talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and representatives of 10 Pacific nations, which were taking place in Fiji, is a major diplomatic setback for China.
Beijing’s project had prompted strong warnings, particularly from Australia and the United States, about the risk for this strategic region of falling into Chinese hands.
The agreement offered the Pacific countries Chinese aid for the training of their law enforcement, cybersecurity, but also the fine mapping of the seabed and better exploitation of maritime and terrestrial natural resources.
Beijing dangled them millions of dollars in financial aid, the prospect of a free trade agreement between the Pacific islands and China and access to the vast Chinese market.
In a recent letter to other leaders in the region, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo called the proposed deal “misleading” to “ensure Chinese influence over the government” and the “economic control” of key sectors.
After the meeting, the leaders made more moderate statements, saying they did not accept Beijing’s proposed “common development vision” due to the lack of regional consensus.
– Discussions continue –
“As always, we favored consensus,” said the summit’s co-organizer, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, after the meeting.
Papua New Guinea, Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia are among the countries that are concerned about these proposals, as well as Palau, which diplomatically recognizes Taiwan and was not invited to this meeting.
“We prefer to deal with our own security issues with China,” Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister Soroi Eoe told AFP, saying he was worried about a regional pact.
Chinese officials, who tried to secure support for the deal during Minister Wang Yi’s 10-day diplomatic offensive in the region, have admitted failure.
“There was general support from all 10 countries,” Chinese Ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo said from Suva. “But of course there are some concerns on some specific issues and we have agreed that these (…) documents will be discussed afterwards until we have reached an agreement.”
At the end of the meeting, which was held behind closed doors, the Chinese minister, urging not to worry about Beijing’s designs, affirmed that the countries concerned “will continue to have continuous discussions and consultations and in-depth in order to reach a broader consensus on cooperation”.
“China will publish its own position”, which will refer to “our own positions and those of the Pacific island countries”, according to him.
Saving face, Wang also announced that the 10 island nations had reached memorandums of understanding with China under China’s “New Silk Roads” infrastructure project.
– Rising waters –
Many Western countries are annoyed by Beijing’s offensive, with the US State Department warning Pacific nations against such “opaque and vague deals” with China.
Australia has joined the United States in urging China to stop expanding its security influence in the region.
Pacific nations remain keen to maintain good relations with China, to find the right balance between Beijing and Washington or to use it to play against each other.
While standing alongside the Chinese minister, the Fijian prime minister lashed out at those who engage in a ‘race to score geopolitical points’.
“It means nothing to anyone who is threatened by rising waters, who has lost their job due to the pandemic, or whose family is affected by rising prices for basic necessities,” he said. .
Most islands in the Pacific barely rise above sea level, making them particularly vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change.