BEIJING – China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting the South Pacific with a 20-person delegation this week in a display of Beijing's growing military and diplomatic presence in the region.
The U.S. has traditionally been the area's major power, but China has been pursuing inroads, particularly with the Solomon Islands, a nation less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Australia. In a sign of Australia’s concern, new Foreign Minister Penny Wong is heading to Fiji less than a week after her Labor Party won national elections.
Below is a look at Wang's tour and its likely outcomes.
WHERE IS WANG HEADED?
Wang is due to stop in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor on a 10-day trip.
The visits emphasize China's push for engagement with the region, which has traditionally retained close ties with Beijing's major rivals including the United States and Australia. China has also waged a protracted struggle for influence because of Taiwan. China considers the self-governed island its own territory and opposes foreign interactions that treat Taiwan as autonomous and independent, but four South Pacific island nations are among Taiwan's dwindling number of formal diplomatic allies.
A more robust Chinese presence in the South Pacific could enable its naval forces to make port calls and possibly put personnel and equipment at a base in the area. That would complicate U.S. defense strategy, particularly over contingency plans for any Chinese move to take Taiwan that would likely draw in Japan and other allies.
WHAT'S BEHIND THE NEW DIPLOMATIC PUSH?
Under leader Xi Jinping, China has been expanding its foreign economic and diplomatic clout through the Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to link East Asia with Europe and beyond through ports, railways, power plants and other infrastructure.
The results have been mixed, with client states such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan falling deeply in debt and developed nations citing national security grounds in banning Chinese government-backed companies including telecoms giant Huawei. The South Pacific, however, remains relatively open for Chinese advances at low cost and potentially high reward.
China has mostly sat on the sidelines over Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its top leaders haven't left the country in more than two years amid strict anti-COVID measures and deteriorating ties with the U.S., Canada and the EU. With Xi seeking a third five-year term as head of the ruling Communist Party, a foreign policy victory would help cement his authority and fend off criticism of his handling of the pandemic and its economic costs.
WHAT'S IN THE PACT BETWEEN CHINA AND SOLOMON ISLANDS?
The agreement could allow China to send security forces to the Solomons at its government's request for what are described as peacekeeping duties. It would also enable Chinese navy ships to make port calls to resupply and provide recreation for sailors, possibly leading to a permanent presence in the islands.
The United States has said it would take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands if the agreement with China poses a threat to U.S. or allied interests.
WHAT IS AUSTRALIA'S MAJOR CONCERN?
Apart from worries over Chinese expansion across the vast Pacific, under its new government, Australia has urged Beijing to lift trade sanctions if it wants to reset their bilateral relationship.
The Chinese premier’s congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on his election victory was widely seen as a relaxation of Beijing’s two-year ban on high-level government contact with Australia. Premier Li Keqiang said China was ready to work with Australia to improve ties, which plummeted after Australia passed legislation targeting Chinese influence in its elections and political discourse.
In retaliation, China has created a series of official and unofficial trade barriers in recent years to a range of Australian exports worth billions of dollars including coal, wine, barley, beef and seafood.
WHAT OTHER PLANS DOES CHINA HAVE IN THE REGION?
According to a draft of an agreement obtained by The Associated Press, China wants 10 Pacific nations to enter into an arrangement with it covering everything from security to fisheries.
The draft shows that China wants to expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly develop a fisheries plan, increase cooperation on running the region’s internet networks, and set up cultural Confucius Institutes and classrooms.
Wang is hoping the countries will endorse the pre-written agreement as part of a joint communique after a May 30 meeting in Fiji with the other foreign ministers.