WELLINGTON – When China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April it raised concerns from the U.S. and its allies that Beijing may be seeking a military outpost in the South Pacific, an area of traditional American naval dominance.
But China upped the ante further this week, reaching out to the Solomon Islands and nine other island nations with a sweeping security proposal that, even if only partially realized, could give it a presence in the Pacific much nearer Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and on the doorstep of the strategic American territory of Guam.
China insists its proposals are targeted at regional stability and economic growth, but experts and governments fear that beneath the surface, it is a brazen attempt to expand its influence in a strategically critical area.
David Panuelo, the president of Micronesia, one of the nations targeted by China, warned the others against signing on, saying it “threatens to bring a new Cold War at best, and a world war at worst.”
“Aside from the impacts on our sovereignty ... it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand on the day when Beijing decides to invade Taiwan,” Panuelo warned in a letter obtained by The Associated Press, noting China has not ruled out using force to take the self-governing island, which it claims as its own territory.
A draft of the proposal obtained by The Associated Press shows that China wants to train Pacific police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement cooperation.
China also wants to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries, and raises the possibility of a free trade area with the Pacific nations.
It targets Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue and Micronesia — and pointedly leaves out the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu, all of which recognize Taiwan as a country.
Like many other nations, the U.S. has a “one China” policy, which does not recognize Taiwan, but also opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo.
The islands dot a vast area of ocean between the continental United States and Asia, and were a center of the Pacific Theater fighting during World War II following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
After the U.S. fleet decisively beat Imperial Japan’s navy at the Battle of Midway in 1942, it embarked upon a campaign to take them back from Japan, starting with the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and including fierce battles for the Tarawa atoll, now part of Kiribati, Peleliu, which is one of the Palau islands, and Guam.
Though the nearest is thousands of kilometers (miles) from Taiwan, they are nonetheless strategically important to China, should it invade the island.
From a military perspective, a Chinese presence on some of the Pacific islands would mean a better ability to delay U.S. naval assets and disrupt supply lines in case of a conflict, said Euan Graham, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“You only have to look at a map to deduce the basic logic of what China is up to,” he said.
“This is prime real estate. Most of it is water, but if you connect up those islands, archipelagos, that's an island chain that runs between Australia and the United States, between Australia and Japan.”
China dispatched its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, this week to visit seven of the island nations and hold virtual talks with the other three in the hope they will endorse the agreement on May 30 at a meeting in Fiji.
The diplomatic blitz comes just after regional powerhouse Australia ushered in a new government, and Beijing may have decided to act now to try to catch new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese off guard, Graham said.
“This follows a period of shadowboxing between Australia and the United States and China for the last few years, in which there were clear suspicions that China was indirectly trying to make inroads through dual-use and infrastructure investment deals, but not doing so in an overt government-to-government way,” he said.
“Now this is China in the most visible, high-level way literally on a door-knocking tour of the region to try and lock in whatever gains it can.”
Albanese, however, was sworn into office in record time so he could take part in meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of India and Japan in Tokyo, and swiftly dispatched Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Fiji in her first week on the job.
“We need to respond to this because this is China seeking to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Albanese said that “Australia dropped the ball” in its relations with the islands, largely over outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison's stance climate change, and pledged to reengage with them. Many of the low-lying Pacific islands consider climate change their most pressing and existential threat, while Morrison continued to be a big supporter of Australia's coal industry.
“We need to be offering more support and, otherwise, we can see the consequences with the deal that was done with the Solomons,” he said. “We know that China sees that as the first of many.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin defended his country's proposal this week, saying it “is based on the principle of mutual benefit, win-win cooperation, openness and inclusiveness.”
“Our relations are not exclusive or posing a threat to any third party, and should not be interfered with by third parties,” he said.
Wang started his tour Thursday in the Solomon Islands, where a news conference was restricted to selected media and only one question was permitted of him, from China's state-owned CCTV broadcaster.
On Friday he was in Kiribati, where the government announced in November it plans to end a commercial fishing ban in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Already, there are fears that China's proposal may give its massive commercial fishing fleet unfettered access to the fragile grounds, said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at New Zealand’s Massey University.
There are also concerns that any kind of base for Chinese commercial fishing fleets in Kiribati could also be used as an additional hub for Beijing’s surveillance activities, she said.
The Solomon Islands and Kiribati both shifted their allegiances from Taiwan to mainland China in 2019, and are seen as among the most amenable to China's proposal. Vanuatu is also seen as likely in that camp, having just signed a contract with China for a runway extension at its Pekoa airport.
But Powles said Panuelo's letter echoed strong overall concerns about the Chinese proposal, and that there are “significant areas of concern” about many areas, including the increased engagement in fisheries and the security cooperation agreements.
“It will only change things if countries agree to adopt this communique, and it doesn’t sound like people are particularly happy about it,” she said.
Graham said he did not think any country would see the Chinese proposal as a need to choose either Beijing or the West, but that even if a few countries signed on it could have significant effects.
“If they could get the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Vanuatu, that right there is some pretty important real estate," he said. “From a purely geostrategic point of view that would change the odds, that would dramatically alter Australia's future defense planning.”
In his letter, Panuelo stressed to the others that Micronesia would reject the proposal.
“Geopolitics like these are the kind of game where the only winning move is not to play,” he said.
Rising reported from Bangkok.