Thursday, December 08, 2022

China’s Pacific plan seen as regional strategic game-changer

WELLINGTON, New Zealand ( Associated Press) — When China signed a security agreement Along with the Solomon Islands in April, it raised concerns from the US and its allies that Beijing might seek a military outpost in the South Pacific, a region of traditional US naval dominance.

But China went further this week with a comprehensive security proposal to the Solomon Islands and nine other island nations that, even if partially realized, could give a presence in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. At the door of the strategic US territory of Guam.

China insists its proposals are aimed 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 the strategically important region.,

President David Panuelo of Micronesia, one of the nations targeted by China, warned others against signing it, saying it “threatens to bring about a new Cold War and the worst world war ever.”

“Besides the impact on our sovereignty… it raises the possibility of China conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States. and New Zealand on the day Beijing decides to invade Taiwan,” Panuelo warned in a letter obtained by The Associated Press, noting that China refused to use force to occupy the self-governing island. which it claims as its territory.

draft proposal The findings, obtained by the Associated Press, reveal that China Pacific wants to train police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement cooperation.

China also wants to jointly develop a maritime plan for fisheries, and raises the prospect of a free trade zone with Pacific countries.

It targets the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue and Micronesia – and explicitly excludes the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu, which are all Taiwanese. recognized as a country.

The US, like many other countries, has a “one China” policy.Which does not recognize Taiwan, but also opposes any unilateral change in the status quo.

The islands dot a vast area of ​​ocean between the continental United States and Asia, and were the center of Pacific theater fighting during World War II following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

After decisively defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway in 1942, the US fleet began a campaign to withdraw them from Japan, beginning with the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and fierce fighting for Tarawa Atoll. Also included, which is now part. Kiribati, Peleliu, which is one of the Palau Islands, and Guam.

Although thousands of kilometers (miles) away from nearby Taiwan, they are still strategically important to China, should it invade the island.

From a military perspective, the Chinese presence on some Pacific islands would mean a better ability to delay US Navy assets and disrupt supply lines in the event of conflict.said Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

“You just have to look at a map to get the basic logic of what China is doing,” he said.

“It’s prime real estate. Most of it is water, but if you add up those islands, the archipelago, it’s an island chain that runs between Australia and the United States, between Australia and Japan.

China sent its top diplomat to Foreign Minister Wang YiHe is expected to visit seven island nations this week and hold virtual talks with the other three to support the agreement at a meeting in Fiji on May 30.

Graham said the diplomatic blitz comes after the start of a new government by regional powerhouse Australia, and that Beijing may have decided to act now to try to catch new Prime Minister Anthony Albany off guard.

“This follows a period of shadowboxing between Australia and the United States and China over the past few years, with clear suspicions that China was trying to gain indirect penetration through dual-use and infrastructure investment deals. , but was not doing so. On the way from government to government,” he said.

“Now this China is literally on a door-knocking tour of the region in the most visible, high-level way possible and to lock in whatever gains it may have.”

However, Albanese took the oath of office in record time so that he could attend meetings with US President Joe Biden and the leaders of India and Japan in Tokyo, and in her first week on the job, Foreign Minister Penny Wong was swiftly deported to Fiji.

“We need to respond because this is China trying to increase its influence in a region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since World War II,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Albanese said that “Australia dropped the ball”, in its relationship with the islands, largely due to outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stance on climate change, and a pledge to reconnect with them. Many lower Pacific Islands consider climate change to be their most pressing and existential threat, while Morrison remains a big supporter of Australia’s coal industry.

“We need to provide more support and, otherwise, we could see the outcome of the deal we made with Solomons,” he said. “We know that China is the first of many to see it.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin this week defended his country’s proposal, saying it is “based on the principle of mutual benefit, win-win cooperation, openness and inclusion.”

“Our relationship is not exclusive or poses a threat to any third party, and should not be interfered with by third parties,” he said.

Wang began his tour on Thursday in the Solomon Islands, where a news conference was restricted to select media and only one question was allowed from China’s state-owned CCTV broadcaster.

He was in Kiribatic on FridayWhere the government announced in November that it plans to end a commercial fishing ban in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are already fears that China’s proposal could give its massive commercial fishing fleet access to fragile grounds, said Anna Powells, a senior lecturer in security studies at New Zealand’s Massey University.

He said there are also concerns that any base for the Chinese commercial fishing fleet in Kiribati could also be used as an additional center for Beijing’s surveillance activities.

The Solomon Islands and Kiribati both shifted their allegiance from Taiwan to mainland China in 2019, and are seen as the most responsive to China’s proposal. Vanuatu is also seen as a possibility in that camp, having signed a contract with China for runway expansion at its Pekoa airport.

But Powells said Panuelo’s letter echoed strong overall concerns about the Chinese proposal, and there are “significant areas of concern” about a number of areas, including an increase in fisheries and security cooperation agreements.

“That will only change if countries agree to adopt this communiqué, and it doesn’t seem like people are particularly happy about it,” she said.

Graham said he doesn’t think any country will see the Chinese resolution as needing to choose Beijing or the West, but it could have significant implications even if some countries signed it.

“If they can get the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Vanuatu, well that’s some very important real estate,” he said. “From a purely geo-strategic standpoint, that would change the odds, which would dramatically change Australia’s future defense plan.”

In his letter, Panuelo insisted to others that Micronesia would reject the offer.

“This kind of geopolitics is the kind of game where the only winning move is not to play,” he said.


Rising was reported from Bangkok.


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