It’s Game On in the Pacific

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It’s Game On in the Pacific

Australia’s new government and the United States are both moving urgently to boost ties with Pacific Island countries as the scope of China’s ambition becomes clear.

It’s Game On in the Pacific

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong delivers a keynote address at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji, May 26, 2022.

Credit: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The first week of the new Australian Labor Government has already been one for the ages. Arguably, not since John Curtin became Australia’s prime minister in October 1941 – just weeks before the eruption of the Pacific War – has a new Australian government faced such immediate and urgent challenges. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, leader of the Australian Labor Party, and his foreign minister, Senator Penny Wong, on their second day in office, attended the scheduled Quad summit in Tokyo on May 24, where they met their U.S., Japanese, and Indian counterparts. Before flying to Tokyo, Wong recorded a message to Pacific nations, stressing the drastically different policies, agenda, and outlook of her new government, stressing in particular that Canberra will be sure to listen to, and then act on, Pacific needs.

On May 26, her fourth day in office, Wong delivered a speech to the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji, that was carefully calibrated to reiterate how distinct the new Australian government is from its predecessor in ways that will transform its relationship with the Pacific.

This rapid elevation of the Pacific to the top of the Australian government’s priorities is due to China’s audacious Pacific Islands agenda. That agenda is to create a bloc of so-called “China-Pacific Island Countries.” China seeks to persuade governments to sign on through a series of meetings in eight of the Pacific countries in question and then a gathering of 10 Pacific nations with Chinese officials at the Pacific Islands Forum on May 30.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, began his tour on May 26 in Solomon Islands, the nation that one month ago signed a controversial security deal with China that “changed everything.”  China’s Xinhua media outlet, in an effort to build momentum, reported effusively on May 27 about Solomon Islands’ enthusiasm for China ties. Wang will also visit Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste by June 4.

Wang travels through the Pacific armed with two documents – the “China-Pacific Islands Countries Common Development Vision” and the “China-Pacific Island Countries Five Year Plan on Common Development” – he seeks to have adopted at the May 30 joint meeting. On the eve of the Australian election, President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo wrote to leaders across the Pacific urging them not to sign what he believes is “the single-most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.” Panuelo appended the two documents to his letter, all of which were published online on May 25.

Panuelo points out in his letter – essential reading for any student of the Pacific – that the intent of these benignly titled documents is “intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them,” meaning China. The textually thin but monumentally consequential documents will allow China “control over our communications, infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space” which will vastly erode “our sovereignty,” he argued.

In more echoes of World War II, the China-Pacific Islands Countries bloc, ominously depicted in this map, closely resembles the southern portion of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the creation of which sparked the Pacific war. This was not lost on Panuelo, who warned of the “terrifying scenario” that allowing China to realize its strategic ambitions will mean “we become stuck in the crossfire of the bigger countries who ought to be benevolent hegemons for our Pacific Region.”

As far as what signing onto China’s “Common Development” deal will entail, the Pacific have already had a taste of that. Press freedom was so sharply curtailed during Wang’s visit in Honiara it led the Media Association of the Solomon Islands to boycott coverage of Wang’s visit. And in Kiribati, Wang’s second stop, it has been revealed that its border, closed by COVID-19, was “forced” to open for the Chinese entourage.

The U.S. and Australia – which Panuelo refers to as “benevolent hegemons” – are in a high stakes contest to blunt China’s fast-paced transformation of the Pacific Islands. Both nations are working in unison, taking care not to lecture to the Pacific, but instead offer alternatives that retain the core values, freedoms and features of Pacific nations.

In the few days since taking office, Penny Wong has led the effort in putting Australia’s case forward, encapsulated in her May 26 speech in Suva. The case she made to the Pacific Islands Forum is profoundly more palatable than it would have been only one week ago under the previous government. Climate action is now the leading focus of the new government, ensured by both Wong’s party and the swathe of “teal independents” that put climate action as their number one priority. Wong has also addressed economic needs, like allowing more people into Australia to work on better terms. This too has been very well received in beleaguered Pacific economies.

The fruits of Wong’s diplomacy in Fiji and the quieter groundwork the U.S. has been laying over the past months, landed a big win on May 26 when the White House announced that Fiji was joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). This is the alternative to China’s “Common Development” deal. The IPEF was launched in Tokyo on May 23 by U.S. President Joe Biden with 12 initial partners including Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam that together represent 40 percent of the world’s GDP. IPEF is designed to deepen the U.S. economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific as well as strengthen domestic economies and institutions. Fiji’s move to join is going to greatly blunt Wang’s efforts.

As well as devising IPEF and other broad Indo-Pacific policies, the White House has been moving forward at pace over the past months to boost its efforts in the Pacific Islands specifically. In February, the White House had achieved the rare feat of unifying Democrats and Republicans in Congress through the administration’s lack of action on moving the Compacts of Free Association negotiations forward. But after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Fiji on February 12, there has been a very noticeable uptick in White House and State Department activity.

While this has been welcome, it has not always succeeded. The security deal Solomon Islands signed with China just ahead of the U.S. delegation’s arrival in Honiara in late April was an immense diplomatic failure both Australia and the United States will have to own and contend with. The Pacific Islands were notably absent this week from Blinken’s landmark speech on the administration’s approach to China, also on May 26. This was an interesting tactic or omission, especially given what is occurring in the Pacific at the same time.

The administration’s recent attention to the Pacific follows a substantial increase in attention from Congress. From 2021, a slew of bills and resolutions have been introduced aimed at countering China as well as reaffirming relations with Pacific nations that have been neglected or absent. There are 10 Pacific nations and territories where the U.S. has no diplomatic presence at all, a situation Congress and the White House now wish to address. The Blue Pacific Act, the Eagle Act and the Honoring Oceania Act all speak to the reinvigoration of U.S. Pacific engagement.

These are the U.S. answers to China’s assertive moves into the Pacific, which go back at least 15 years. China has exploited the U.S. absence and inattention and Australia’s wrong-footed diplomacy, especially over the past nine years of Coalition government, which not only lacked action on the Pacific’s leading priority, climate change, but vigorously supported coal. But China has serious liabilities in the Pacific, including its own climate record. As Blinken underscored in his May 26 address, “Today about 20 nations are responsible for 80 percent of emissions. China is number one. The United States is number two.”

There are also systemic and cultural differences. Pacific nations are democracies. They are also deeply religious. The risk to religious freedoms from becoming a “China-Pacific Island Country” will resonate deeply throughout the Pacific. This too needs urgent amplification.

As Micronesia’s President Panuelo put it in his entreaty to other Pacific leaders to reject China’s development of a bloc of China-Pacific Island Countries, “geopolitics like these are the kind of game where the only winning move is not to play.” We will soon see if other Pacific nations concur.