New Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is lobbying Pacific Island nations not to sign up to a sweeping multilateral security, economic and cyber pact with China, warning regional disunity threatened stability and prosperity,
Delivering her first major speech during a trip to Fiji just days after being sworn in, Senator Wong pledged the new government would listen to the needs of the Pacific, as Beijing ratchets up its own efforts to gain greater influence.
Senator Wong emphasised Labor’s commitment to action on climate change – which Pacific leaders see as the gravest threat facing their nations – saying previous governments had “neglected” their responsibilities.
“This is a different Australian government. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pacific family in response to this crisis,” she said.
She also said Australian aid “won’t come with strings attached, nor impose unsustainable financial burdens”.
Senator Wong’s two-day dash to Suva clashes with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarking on his own trip to eight Pacific nations, armed with the draft agreement ahead of a foreign ministers meeting in Fiji on 30 May.
The “Common Development Vision” proposes to “strengthen exchanges and co-operation in the fields of traditional and non-traditional security”, including police training. as well as China provide police forensic labs for collection of fingerprints, and assisting customs services to collect biometric data.
Other areas of co-operation include on “network governance and cyber security” and natural resources, particularly fishing to “optimise the layout of the marine economy”.
The draft agreement also proposes a free trade area, greater Chinese assistance on COVID-19 and co-operation on climate change. It follows China and Solomon Islands signing a bilateral security pact.
The agreement has met resistance from Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo, who warned fellow leaders it would shift them “very close into Beijing’s orbit”.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia respected the right of sovereign nations to make their own decisions but China’s efforts had been building for a while and Australia needed to engage more.
“We need to respond to this. Because this is China seeking to increase its influence in that region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War,” Mr Albanese said.
Former high commissioner to Fiji and Solomon Islands, James Batley, said the draft Chinese agreement should be taken seriously but was not a reason for panic.
While agreements were easy to sign, “implementation is hard”.
“It’s very clear evidence of China’s intent and intent to disrupt traditional relationships and patterns of behaviour,” Batley said.
Batley said while Pacific leaders would be reluctant to offend Wang during his visit, there would be some push back against the draft agreement “for their own self-respect”.
Lowy Institute Pacific Islands program head Jonathan Pryke suggested China had been ambitious with the breadth of what it sought.
“From a Pacific perspective, it would be looked at with a lot of trepidation,” he said.
“This is pretty risky for China and might reveal the limits of their diplomatic efforts in the region.”
A regional security source said Papua New Guinea and Fiji would be unlikely to agree to the deal with elections looming but Samoa and Tonga could be tempted because both have major infrastructure plans but lack funding.
But Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, said China had a high chance of getting a significant number of nations on board.
“I should think they’ve got some good prospects. Maybe not on this trip, but keep up the effort and I think Tonga, Vanuatu, PNG, and Kiribati might come into the fold,” he said.
“Even Timor might be ready too. By ‘into the fold’ I mean allow the Chinese to set up a military/security presence of some sort – even if not excluding ‘allied’ militaries.
“The PRC [China] just might have a first island chain of its own set up before long that keeps the Aussies and New Zealanders hemmed in and cut off.“
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry did not deny it was seeking a region-wide deal but dismissed suggestions it would trigger a new cold war as “sensational”.