1 June 2022
Wang Yi tours Pacific
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is wrapping up a tour of eight Pacific island countries to seek support for an economic and security deal known as the “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision”. Yet his trip didn’t go according to plan.
The proposed agreement signalled China’s desire to be a major security stakeholder in the Pacific. It would have dramatically increased China’s integration with the region encompassing trade and investment, public health, police training and cooperation, cyber security, maritime surveillance and disaster recovery.
The deal sought to shift China’s relationship with Pacific island countries away from their bilateral nature into a multilateral structure. Yet this was a fundamental misreading of the region.
Pacific island countries often use their collective diplomatic weight to address issues that are important across the region – especially the mutual threat of climate change – and seek consensus when pursuing shared initiatives. However, these countries highly value their independence, and binding them collectively to an agreement that came with benefits but undermined existing partnerships and inhibited each country’s ability to manoeuvre was going to be a difficult sell.
Wang met with the foreign ministers of the ten Pacific island countries that recognise China rather than Taiwan, who politely rejected the agreement. In response, China quickly released a “position paper” for its future engagement with the Pacific, with mentions of policing and cyber security dropped from the initial plan. Wang stated he hoped that this can “shape more consensus and cooperation” in the future.
Penny Wong tours Pacific
After her trip to Tokyo for the Quad leaders meeting last week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s next stop was always going to be to Fiji. Although each Pacific island country is of critical importance, Fiji’s regional weight, and prime minister Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s powerful diplomatic presence, ensured that his hand was the first to be shaken in the Pacific by Australia’s new foreign minister.
The Labor government has committed to enhance and fortify Australia’s relationships with the Pacific. The previous government’s attempts to demonstrate the value of the Pacific island countries through its Pacific “step-up” policy was often undermined by domestic political calculations. Due to the existential threat to Pacific island countries created by climate change, Australia’s domestic energy policy had effectively become its foreign policy in the Pacific.
In Suva, Wong acknowledged that Australia had previously let the Pacific down with its response to climate change and praised Pacific leaders for their leadership on the issue. In 2018, the Pacific Islands Forum issued the Boe Declaration, which stated that climate change is the greatest security threat to the region. Australia signed this declaration, but its policies did not reflect the gravity of the statement it endorsed.
This has led Pacific island countries’ leaders to believe that Australia’s word isn’t genuine. Restoring trust through limiting carbon emissions and pivoting away from consuming and exporting fossil fuels is the vital headwater from which all of Australia’s other regional strategic objectives will flow.
Timor-Leste’s new president, José Ramos-Horta, has been blunt in asserting that his country needs to leverage strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. Ramos-Horta – who was previously president between 2007 and 2012 – has stated that it is in Australia’s interest “to see a pro-Australia, pro-Western values Timor-Leste on Australia’s doorstep”.
Yet, Ramos-Horta has also sensed there are significant benefits in courting China. The relationship between Beijing and Dili is strong due to China having supported Timor-Leste’s independence after Indonesia’s invasion in 1975. China was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Timor-Leste after it gained independence in 2002.
However, Australia has been the country’s strongest supporter since 2002, notwithstanding some less than friendly spying by the Australian government, and aggressive haggling over the maritime border and royalties from offshore gas fields. This aside, Australia is the largest financial donor to Timor-Leste, provides training and support to its police and military, and has given it more than 1 million COVID-19 vaccines.
China has instead focused on big-ticket items, including the construction of the Presidential Palace, the Foreign and Defence ministry buildings, and the Defence Force Headquarters. These are the trappings of state, but they aren’t necessarily an indication of a successful country. Ramos-Horta should be seeking partners who can provide what Timor-Leste most needs – consistent revenue, trade, education and opportunity for its people.