THE FAILURE TO push through a regional security and trade agreement with eight Pacific Island governments is an embarrassing setback for Beijing.
It was intended as the capstone of long-laid plans to cement China’s strategic interest in the region. However, Australia, which considers the South Pacific its ‘backyard’, and the United States have become increasingly concerned by that. With Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his new Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, both in the region in recent days, it is Wang who will return home the less satisfied.
While he signed five bilateral agreements, covering, variously, infrastructure, fisheries, trade and police equipment, the centrepiece, a proposed regional security and trade agreement, was left unsigned. The communique Beijing had drafted was left unissued.
The reaction of Australia to a bilateral security cooperation agreement last month between China and the Solomon Islands underlined how the Pacific Islands have become another area of geopolitical competition as the West has hardened its attitudes towards China’s growing willingness to express its regional ambition and promote its new Global Security Initiative to developing nations as an alternative architecture to the US-led international order.
As in Southeast Asia, South Pacific Islands’ governments do not want to become unequivocally part of the West’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ alliance but are wary about becoming solely dependent on China’s money and markets. Beijing will have to reflect that when it returns to South Pacific with a revised regional agreement, as it surely will.