Riots and snubs: In Pacific Islands, a growing wariness of China | Business and Economy News

Along with senior diplomats in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed leaders from Pacific island nations last October. The presidents of Kiribati, the prime ministers of Fiji, Tonga and Niue, and the foreign ministers of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Solomon Islands appear in windows on the video summit, video summit Their significance heralds a new promise in China’s relations with their region.

But one leader backed Beijing at the first ever China Pacific Island Foreign Ministers Meeting.

Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who is also the country’s foreign minister, skipped the summit and sent a junior representative. The joint statement that the participants made at the end of the meeting left Samoa, a country of about 200,000 people, located 2,600 miles (4184 km) southwest of Hawaii, completely out of Samoa.

The previously unreported rejection is the latest evidence of tensions creeping into China’s relationship with the sparsely populated Pacific island nations, some of which are trying to re-establish their relationship with China. economic relationship with Beijing.

Since coming to power last July, Mata’afa – Samoa’s first female prime minister – has delivered on her party’s promise to halt a China-backed port project, calling a price tag of $100 million. dollars is too high for a country with a gross domestic product of only $800. m. Her predecessor, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, signed a contract to buy the port.

Nearly 2,000 miles (3219 km) to the west, The Solomon Islands were rocked by violence in late November amid longstanding divisions over the country’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, which considers the self-governing island as its territory. Chinese-owned businesses in the capital Honiara have been targeted by protesters from Malaita, the country’s most populous island, which has protested the move from Taipei to Beijing.

At the heart of the protests is the perception that the national government is trying to overthrow the regional government, said Peter Kenilorea Jr, an opposition member of parliament in the Solomon Islands.

Kenilorea Jr, a former UN diplomat, told Al Jazeera: “Across the islands in the Pacific, I have friends asking why the Solomon Islands moved to China from Taiwan. “They’ve got their own experience with Beijing.”

Solomon Island on fire
The Solomon Islands were rocked by violence in late November amid longstanding divisions over the country’s decision in 2019 to recognize China and end diplomatic relations with Taiwan. [File: Job Rongo’Au Fuoo/ ZFM Radio/AFP]

Aside from Palau, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu – all of which recognize Taiwan – the Pacific island nations all have diplomatic relations with Beijing. Since 2009, China has been the second largest lender in the region after the Asian Development Bank, lending $1.34 billion to the Pacific Islands.

It owns a majority stake in many mining projects scattered across the islands. And for the past eight years, it has been the leading trading partner in the region, close to Australia.

The setback in Samoa and the turmoil in the Solomon Islands, according to some analysts, reflect a widespread thinking in the region about how countries should deal with Beijing.

“There is certainly growing concern in the Pacific about the nature of China’s engagement,” said Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University. China and how China pursues its interests in the region. Al Jazeera. “This was reflected at the recent foreign minister’s meeting.”

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said countries in the region still want to do business with China. But there is growing recognition that there is often a big gap between the big commitments Beijing makes and what its actions in the region really are, he said.

Pryke told Al Jazeera: “The reality of what China brings and the cost has led countries to re-evaluate that relationship. “The Pacific has been wise before China. They are treating China like they treat other partners, pushing back when necessary.”

No country has captured that shift more clearly than Samoa. Back in 1976, the country was one of the first countries in the region to establish diplomatic relations with communist China at a time when most Pacific nations recognized Taiwan.

Today, Samoa is so economically dependent on China that it owes 40 percent of its foreign debt — about $160 million — to Beijing alone, Powles said. The port project will add to that debt.

It helps the regional decision-making that Australia is pushing to offer alternatives to Chinese investments. At the end of October, Canberra financed the bulk of a $1.6 billion contract for Telstra Corp to buy Digicel Pacific, the largest telecommunications provider in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Nauru.

“It’s a strategically important company, and the idea is to prevent China from buying it,” Pryke said. In December, Australia, the United States and Japan announced they would jointly fund an undersea cable that would bring fast internet to Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.

‘Great power competition’

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia has been a leading provider of aid to the Pacific islands, from personal protective equipment and tests early in the crisis, to its commitment to provide a vaccine to treat the virus. $450 million in the region starting last March. New Zealand has also provided doses of the vaccine to its smaller neighbours.

Robert Bohn Sikol, a former MP in Vanuatu, told Al Jazeera: “Australia and New Zealand have kept us afloat throughout the pandemic.

In contrast, recent research by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, shows that Chinese aid to Pacific island nations has declined since 2018, despite the pandemic bringing gives donor countries a perfect platform to deliver cash to smaller countries.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Fiji in February – the first trip by the top US diplomat in 37 years – and, among other things, announced that the United States would set up set up an embassy in the Solomon Islands even as the country recovers. recent violence.

Michael Kabuni, a political scientist from Papua New Guinea, told Al Jazeera: “The Solomon Islands case is a case of great power struggle.

Sandra Tarte, an associate professor of international relations at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, said Pacific island nations have a “contradictory view” of the increased competition between the West and China. in their area.

On the one hand, it gives countries a larger set of potential economic partners to choose from and more negotiating power.

Climate Change in the Pacific OPINION / Dr. Jale Samuwai
Pacific island nations, such as Vanuatu, see climate change as a major threat [Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Richard Clark, press secretary to President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia, told Al Jazeera that the country “welcomes increased interest” from the US and China.

But Clark also said the country wants the two powers to work together for the region, especially on issues like climate change.

“The United States cannot solve climate change on its own, and China cannot solve climate change on its own,” he said.

In fact, Tarte said there are concerns in the region that the competition could bring “unwelcome tensions and military build-up risks.” Those worries came true with the signing of the contract last year The AUKUS Treaty gives the US and UK the supply of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

The deal has drawn criticism from regional leaders such as Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, who has reiterated controversial nuclear tests conducted by the US and UK in the region before the Pacific islands. independence.

Kenilorea Jr, member of the Solomon Islands parliament, said that even as their concerns about China grow, countries in the region do not want to be dragged into a geopolitical conflict between Washington and Beijing.

“You have to remember – when two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” he said.

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