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China plays for influence in South Pacific with security proposal and diplomatic tour

By Simone McCarthy and Lizzy Yee, CNN

China has proposed a sweeping regional security deal with a number of Pacific Island nations, according to documents seen by CNN, amid concern from the United States and its allies about Beijing’s expanding reach in the region.

The draft proposal sent by China to potential partners in the South Pacific calls for greater cooperation in security, policing and cybersecurity, and in economic development, among other areas.

The draft proposal, provided to CNN by a person with direct knowledge of the matter and first reported by Reuters, is expected to be discussed at the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Fiji next week — part of a 10-day regional diplomatic tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Wang’s tour began Thursday in the Solomon Islands and will bring the minister to Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

It’s not clear whether the proposed pact would gain wide support among Pacific Island nations with relations with Beijing. But, if accepted, it would mark a significant advance in Beijing’s connection to the region, which holds geo-strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific.

The Pacific Islands’ location, largely to the northeast of Australia, means the island nations have long been viewed by military strategists as a vital connecting thread between the US territory of Guam and US-allied Australia.

Both the US and Australia are wary of a China that has grown increasingly assertive in the South China Sea extending its reach further into Pacific waters, and potentially isolating that vital island chain network.

Meanwhile, the island nations themselves — typically more concerned about the ravages of climate change than geopolitics — have been wary of being viewed as pawns in a great power struggle.

Already at least one country to which the agreement was directed has raised concerns, and there has been broader backlash from other regional powers who are wary of China’s intentions.

In a letter to 22 other Pacific leaders seen by CNN, President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo said the draft proposal was intended to shift Pacific Island nations with diplomatic ties to China “very close into Beijing’s orbit.”

Panuelo argued that in addition to impacting the sovereignty of Pacific Island nations, signing such an agreement could bring about a new “Cold War” amid tensions between China and the West.

News of the draft proposal and Wang’s tour may have struck a deeper chord of concern from other powers as it comes on the heels of the Solomon Islands and China inking a bilateral security deal last month — sparking fears of providing an opening for a Chinese military base on the island nation.

In remarks in Honiara on Thursday, Wang defended that Solomon Islands-China security deal as “open and transparent” and said there were no intentions to establish military bases.

“China supports Pacific Island Countries in strengthening security cooperation and working together to address regional security challenges … Pacific Island Countries are sovereign and independent states and are not anyone’s ‘backyard,'” he said.

Last month, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare made assurances Honiara’s deal with Beijing would “complement” an existing security agreement with Australia and would “not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region.” The Solomons is around 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Australia’s northeastern coast.

But China’s regional intentions were of apparent high concern for Australia this week, with new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese — who had been critical of his predecessor’s failure to avert China’s deal with the Solomon Islands — saying Thursday his country “cannot afford” to “drop the ball” in its response.

“This is China seeking to increase its influence in that region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War,” he said, adding that Canberra would need to offer more support.

In a mark of the Albanese government’s concern, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong traveled to Fiji on Thursday, where — in a speech that didn’t name China directly — she pitched Australia as “a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached, nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens.”

“We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions. We believe in transparency. We believe in true partnerships,” Wong said.

The US, for its part, announced Thursday that Fiji will be joining its recently unveiled flagship economic plan for the region, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.

Beijing has not confirmed it is seeking a multilateral agreement in the region.

Wang’s visit was meant to “further strengthen high-level exchange, consolidate political mutual trust, expand practical cooperation, and deepen people-to-people bond so as to build an even closer community with a shared future for China and Pacific Island countries,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Wednesday.

The spokesman also pushed back when asked about fears that a Pacific Islands security agreement could spark a Cold War — calling this “sensational remarks.”

In Washington on Wednesday, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the US was “aware that China seeks to negotiate a range of arrangements during the foreign minister’s visit to the region.”

“We are concerned that these reported agreements may be negotiated in a rushed, non-transparent process,” he said, pointing to what he described as a pattern of Beijing offering “shadowy, vague deals,” while adding the US respects countries’ ability to make their own sovereign decisions.

The proposed draft security deal and Wang’s tour come amid heightened concern from other regional powers over Beijing’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as its sovereign territory. It has been building up and militarizing its facilities there, turning islands into military bases and airstrips, and allegedly creating a maritime militia that could number hundreds of vessels.

And in the East China Sea, China claims sovereignty over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands. In recent years, the US has reiterated its promise to defend the islands in the event of foreign aggression.

In a joint statement Monday, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida “voiced concern” over China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands and its lack of “addressing regional voices of concern.”

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CNN’s Angus Watson contributed to this report

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Asia/Pacific

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