China is expanding security partnerships with island states across the Pacific, according to American lawmakers and officials wary of the communist regime moving to curtail U.S influence in a critical region.

“Through foreign assistance, elite capture, and robust public messaging campaigns, the PRC has moved aggressively to assert itself in the Pacific Islands,” Assistant Secretary Daniel Kritenbrink, the lead State Department official for East Asia and the Pacific, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.

Those efforts are paying off, most recently in the form of an agreement to open a Chinese police outpost in Kiribati, an island nation whose strategic location made it the scene of an intense battle between U.S and imperial Japanese forces during World War II.

U.S officials have been working to halt the slide, but even recent American diplomatic successes could be undermined by Beijing’s initiatives.

“Papua New Guinea, which just signed a new security pact with us last year, has been approached by China about a new security and policing arrangement,” Senator James Risch (R-ID), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during the hearing. “Chinese police are present in Kiribati, and we know China has set its sights on other nations.”

Such countries might appear small on a map of the globe, but they loom large for strategists in capitals around the world, from Washington to Beijing, because the island states have sovereignty and economic rights over vast waterways that link U.S forces in Hawaii to the broader Pacific Rim.

“Our whole approach to the Pacific Islands is to listen to the Pacific Island leaders, what their top needs are … and then to make sure that we meet the needs that are outlined in [their] strategy,” Kritenbrink said.
Yet U.S policymakers sometimes have struggled to follow through on that rhetoric even in relatively simple cases, such as the renewal of the agreements that organise U.S ties to the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. Known as Compacts of Free Association, these deals “ensure that the United States – and only the United States – can maintain a military presence” in those countries, as a senior Pentagon official who testified alongside Kritenbrink put it, but Congress only authorised funding for the agreements last week, following a lengthy delay.

“Our defence posture in the Pacific Islands countries, ranging in levels of presence from a permanent footprint to rotational forces, is critical for U.S military logistics, sustainment, and power projection,” said Assistant Secretary Ely Ratner, the top Pentagon official for the Indo-Pacific, during the hearing.

“Failure to extend the economic assistance related to the Compacts would have had serious consequences for the economies of our FAS partners, our strategy in the broader Pacific Islands region, and, ultimately, our national security.”

China has proven effective at using tactics that U.S officials regard as buying influence in the region to persuade countries such as the Solomon Islands to cut ties with Taiwan and establish a strategic relationship with Beijing. U.S officials have struggled to counter those initiatives in part because of a hesitance in the United States to enter into major trade agreements.

“We have to be realistic, that if we do not have a robust trade agenda in the Pacific Island countries, that they will — not by desire, maybe, but by default — ultimately deal with the Chinese,” Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said Thursday.

U.S officials have warned in the meantime that China’s influence, including the policing partnerships, comes with painful downsides for the countries it targets.

“Certainly, when you think about some areas where countries ought to be cautious about their engagement with China, part of it is the leverage and the coercive avenues that are opened up for the government,” Kritenbrink said. “Part of it is really the organised crime, as well.”

Risch, the Idaho Republican, suggested that the administration develop a plan to assist governments with internal security as an alternative to Chinese arrangements.

“I would strongly suggest that you guys revisit your efforts in that regard and see how you might be able to make them more attractive, so when they do bite on the hook, that it’s our hook and not the Chinese,” he said.

Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will next week visit Australia and New Zealand, officials said Thursday, with the diplomatic blitz expected to focus on easing trade.

Wang’s visit to Australia, his first as foreign minister since 2017, comes as the two countries have begun to resolve simmering trade disputes, despite recent sparring over human rights and China’s growing clout in the Pacific region.

“I think it is a good thing that Wang Yi is visiting,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters Thursday, citing “significant progress” in removing trade impediments.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said Wang would also be visiting Wellington.

“We look forward to re-engaging with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and discussing the full breadth of the bilateral relationship, which is one of New Zealand’s most important and complex.”

China’s top diplomat is scheduled to hold “strategic dialogue” talks with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Canberra on 20 March.

“We seek to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest,” Wong said in a statement.
Australia’s trade relations with China have improved since Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party won power in 2022, adopting a less confrontational tone than the previous conservative government.

China had imposed tariffs and trade barriers on key Australian exports in 2020, retaliating after Canberra barred Huawei from 5G contracts and then called for a probe into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beijing’s foreign ministry said Wang’s visits would be “a prelude to high-level exchanges between China and the two countries this year”.

Wang “will have extensive and in-depth exchange of views with foreign ministers and leaders of the two countries on bilateral relations as well as international and regional issues”, ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing.

“China looks forward to working with the two countries to implement the consensus reached by the two countries’ leaders, strengthen strategic communication, enhance mutual trust, (and) deepen exchanges and cooperation.”

Beijing has already unwound tariffs and restrictions on Australian coal, timber and barley, and it is expected to do the same for Australian wine.

Melbourne-based Treasury Wine Estates said this week it had been advised by Chinese and Australian authorities of Beijing’s “interim draft determination” to remove the wine tariffs following a five-month review.
It expected a final decision “in the coming weeks”.

Albanese made a breakthrough trip to Beijing in November 2023, hailing progress in ties as “unquestionably very positive”.

The two countries remain at odds in strategic areas, however.

Last month, Australia’s government said it had expressed its “outrage” after Beijing handed a suspended death sentence to Chinese-Australian dissident writer Yang Jun.

Wong warned at the time that such decisions would “have an impact” on the relationship.

Overseas, Australia and its allies are seeking to parry China’s expanding reach in the South Pacific.

Canberra and Washington were jolted into action after Beijing signed a secretive security deal with Solomon Islands in 2022.

Australia also supports the U.S and Asian countries in opposing Beijing’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea.

If wine tariffs are removed, only Australian rock lobster, hay and beef from some abattoirs will remain subject to Chinese trade restrictions.

New Zealand has typically had a far less prickly relationship with Beijing, which is its largest trading partner.