The draft proposal that China has sent to potential partners in the South Pacific calls for greater cooperation in security, policing and cybersecurity, and in economic development, among other areas.
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 is not clear whether the proposed agreement will have broad support among the Pacific island nations with ties to Beijing. But, if accepted, it would constitute a major advance in Beijing’s connection to the region, which is of geostrategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region.
The location of the Pacific islands, largely to the northeast of Australia, means that military strategists have long viewed the island nations as a vital link between the US territory of Guam and US-allied Australia.
Both the United States and Australia are concerned about a China becoming increasingly assertive in the South China Sea to extend its reach into the waters of the Pacific, and possibly isolate this vital island chain network.
Meanwhile, the island states themselves—usually more concerned about the ravages of climate change than geopolitics—were wary of being seen 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 widespread reaction from other regional powers wary of China’s intentions.
In a letter to 22 other Pacific leaders seen by CNN, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo said the draft proposal aims to shift Pacific island nations that have diplomatic relations with China “very close to Beijing’s orbit.”
Panuelo argued that in addition to affecting the sovereignty of the Pacific island nations, the signing of such an agreement could lead to a new “cold war” amid tensions between China and the West.
News of the draft proposal and Wang’s tour may have struck and rattled deeper than other powers as it comes on the heels of the Solomon Islands and China signing a bilateral security pact last month – raising fears of an opportunity for the Chinese military. base in the island country.
In remarks in Honiara on Thursday, Wang defended the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China as “open and transparent” and said there was no intention to establish military bases.
“China supports the Pacific island countries in strengthening security cooperation and working together to address regional security challenges… Pacific island countries are sovereign and independent countries and are not anyone’s ‘backyard’,” he said.
Last month, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari gave assurances that the Honiara deal with Beijing would “complement” an existing security agreement with Australia and would not “negatively affect or undermine peace and harmony in our region”. The Solomon Islands are located about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) off the northeastern coast of Australia.
But China’s territorial intentions have been a major concern for Australia this week, with new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – who has criticized his predecessor’s failure to dodge China’s deal with the Solomon Islands – saying on Thursday that his country “cannot afford to ‘drop the ball'” in its response.
In a sign of the Albanian government’s concern, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong traveled to Fiji on Thursday, where – in a letter that did not directly mention China – she described Australia as “a partner that does not come with strings attached, and does not impose unsustainable financial burdens”.
“We are a partner that will not undermine Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions,” Wong said. “We believe in transparency. We believe in true partnerships.”
For its part, the United States announced on Thursday that Fiji will join its recently unveiled master economic plan for the region, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
Beijing has not confirmed that it is seeking a multilateral agreement in the region.
Wang’s visit was aimed at “further promoting high-level exchanges, consolidating political mutual trust, expanding practical cooperation, and deepening people-to-people ties so as to build a closer community with a shared future for China and the Pacific island nations.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.
The spokesperson also responded when asked about concerns that a Pacific island security agreement could spark a cold war – describing these “sensational statements”.
In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States “recognizes that China is seeking to negotiate a set of arrangements during the Secretary of State’s visit to the region.”
“We are concerned that these reported agreements may be negotiated in a hasty and opaque process,” he said, referring to what he described as Beijing’s pattern of progress as “vague and ambiguous deals,” adding that the United States respects countries’ ability. to make their own sovereign decisions.
The proposed draft security agreement and Wang’s tour come amid growing concern from other regional powers about Beijing’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
In the East China Sea, China claims sovereignty over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands. In recent years, the United States has reiterated its promise to defend the islands in the event of external aggression.