The Pacific Island countries turned down a bold Chinese proposal to have a region-wide agreement after a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterparts in Fiji.

China was offering the Pacific states a sweeping trade and security deal that covered free trade, police coordination, cybersecurity, and disaster response. Endorsing the draft proposal was part of Wang’s 10-day diplomatic tour in the region.

The draft document said that China and the Pacific Islands will “strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and nontraditional security.”

“China will hold intermediate and high-level police training for Pacific Island Countries through bilateral and multilateral means,” it further wrote.

A joint media conference attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama (Fijian Government/Twitter)

Wang’s trip began last Thursday in the Solomon Islands, which has been in the headlines since April after its Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced his country’s intent to sign a controversial security deal with Beijing. The deal sparked concerns about a possible Chinese military base in the island nation.

The Pacific Islands are strategically located northeast of Australia. Military analysts have long considered the region as a crucial connecting route to the United States island territory of Guam and allied Australia. Both countries have grown wary over the increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea as well as in Pacific waters.

Meanwhile, countries within the contested region have been more entangled with climate change rather than geopolitics, and are concerned they might become pawns in a greater power struggle between larger countries.

In a letter addressed to 22 other Pacific Island leaders, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo expressed his intention to not endorse the deal and cautioned his counterparts that it will drag the region “very close into Beijing’s orbit.”

Panelo called the draft deal “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes,” adding that it “threatened to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst.”

He also highlighted the risk of being in between a potential armed conflict between China and the US as tensions over Taiwan continue to escalate.

“The practical impacts, however, of Chinese control over our communications infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space, aside from impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand,” Panuelo noted.

Small Victories

Despite failing to get a consensus agreement on a grand regional trade and security deal, Wang listed some areas where Pacific nations have agreed to work with the Chinese government in a news conference on Monday.

“After the meeting, China will release its own position paper on our own positions, propositions, and cooperation proposals with Pacific Island countries,” Wang said through an interpreter. “And going forward, we will continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus.

For one, a Friday visit to Kiribati, where a vital fishing ground the size of California is found, resulted in 10 signed agreements between China and the Kiribati government. The deals range from economic cooperation to infrastructure programs, which include the construction of a specific bridge.

Wang mentioned that “some have been questioning why China has been so active in supporting Pacific Island countries.” He said that Beijing has long stood for other developing countries not only in the Pacific but around the globe, citing the 1960s project that helped African countries build railways.

My advice for those people is: Don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous,” Wang said.

The Chinese Threat to the West

China’s growing economic and political influence coupled with its intent to grapple for hegemony in the Pacific makes it an imposing threat to traditional regional powers Australia and New Zealand, who are allied to the West.

In a speech last Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the White House intends to convert the international bloc against Russia into a coalition to counter a more serious long-term threat that is China.

“Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order — and that is the one posed by the People’s Republic of China,” Blinken said.

“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order — and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” he said. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”