TCSS Security Commentaries #026

The China-Pacific Islands agreement can potentially compel Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to terminate relations with Taiwan, as happened with Nicaragua in 2021 and Solomon Islands in 2019.

Bruno Magno, MoFA Taiwan Fellow

Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Fijian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama at the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Suva (Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China)

In May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi began a 10-day Pacific Island Nations tour culminating in the Pacific Nations Summit. At the summit, a comprehensive treaty between the 10 Pacific Island Nations and China covering economic and security issues was expected to be signed. However, the negotiations failed. Journalists and analysts considered Wang Yi’s Pacific tour a failure. However, before jumping to a conclusion about the current Chinese power projection capabilities, a brief analysis of the context in which the Pacific Summit took place is relevant.

The Pacific Islands region, in recent decades, was mainly an area of almost exclusive ​​Australian influence. However, since the 2010s, tensions between Australia and China have escalated. One of the reasons is the competition for influence in the region amidst ongoing US-China strategic competition. Since the 12th Five Year Plan, China has changed the focus of its economic policy. Previously, Chinese economic policy was based on prioritizing exports to developed countries such as the US, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia. Now, the new policy is oriented towards economic development based on the domestic consumer market and productive self-sufficiency.

The feasibility of such an economic policy depended on a foreign policy of expansion and diversification of regional partnerships. It is demonstrated by strengthening the SCO, institutionalizing the RCEP, strategic partnerships with African and Latin American countries, and the most ambitious project: the BRI. The new Chinese posture raised even more tensions and increased competition between China and Western powers in sectors and countries that previously had an almost exclusive Western presence.

The change in Chinese economic and diplomatic orientation was recently confirmed in the new five-year plan for 2021-2025. It reaffirmed the commitment to Chinese economic self-sufficiency with the Made in China 2025 policy. The Chinese Foreign Minister’s tour of the Pacific is part of it. Its objective was to strengthen security and economic relations with Pacific island nations. Also, to ensure unhindered access to the strategic ports and raw materials. In return, the Chinese government promised access to aid and training programs in the agriculture, tourism, and technology sectors.

The original Chinese intention was to strike a comprehensive agreement – China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision- with all countries participating in the Fiji summit on May 30. However, the agreement was thwarted, considering that Pacific countries would be drawn into the geopolitical dispute between China and the West. However, the tour yielded some positive outcomes for China. Wang Yi signed a series of bilateral agreements with countries in the region, including a historic security agreement with the Solomon Islands government.

Concurrently with Wang Yi’s tour, the new Australian Labor government foreign minister Penny Wong undertook her first tour of the region. She reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to maintain close cooperation with the region, especially concerning climate change issues. Despite hoping to de-escalate the diplomatic tensions between Australia and China,  the new foreign minister Penny Wong expressed serious concerns about the Chinese diplomatic offensive in the Pacific region.

A second objective of the Chinese diplomatic offensive in the Pacific was extremely concerning to Taiwan. China aspires to seek support from Pacific island states for the One-China policy and isolate Taiwan. The China-Pacific Islands agreement can potentially compel Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to terminate relations with Taiwan, as happened with Nicaragua in 2021 and Solomon Islands in 2019.

In conclusion, the Pacific Islands increasingly appear to become the new theater of strategic competition between China and the US. Against the backdrop of recent events and the fiery rhetoric on both sides, an escalation of tensions can be expected. Not only in terms of economic competition and political influence in the region but also in terms of security, especially concerning guaranteeing navigation and fishing rights in contested areas or areas of Chinese influence.