As China’s foreign minister Wang Yi is driven from Honiara’s port-side Heritage Park Hotel up to Government House for a meet-and-greet with the Solomon Islands Governor-General, he is expected to pass through the capital’s Chinatown – still rebuilding after last year’s fiery race-fuelled riots. 

At Chungwah School, which was constructed with Chinese money, the children will be waving red and white flags. Locals took refuge in the school’s concrete buildings in November, as their shops and homes were razed. “Two of our buildings were looted and burned on the second day of rioting,” said third-generation businessman Henry Kwan, speaking to Newsroom in the aftermath. “We did have quite a lot of security during the unrest but they couldn’t hold out the crowd.”

This week Wang, one of China’s most senior politicians and foreign minister for nine years, should have ample security. China was granted approval to bring 10 armed personnel into the country to secure its embassy in Honiara after the riots, and Wang is expected be similarly well protected from when he flies in late on Wednesday night. On top of that, Solomons, Australian and Kiwi soldiers and police will be patrolling the capital, looking for signs of unrest.

► Ambassador champions China’s increased security presence in the Pacific
► Terence Wood: Foreign powers already have boots on the ground
► Stephen Hoadley: Solomons an over-reaction or legitimate concern?
► NZ troops patrol China-US proxy war in Solomon Islands

Former government minister Alfred Sasako is now editor or the Solomon Star newspaper. He has been a robust critic of perceived government misuse of Beijing money, but he says China’s engagement does provide options for Pacific nations. “The beauty about China being here is that it acts as a magnet to draw others to say, hey, you haven’t fulfilled your responsibility,” he tells Newsroom. “This is the time to do it.”

In countries such as the Solomons with deep-seated and entrenched unemployment, he says it’s about time international aid partners step up – and China is doing just that, with a very large loans book.

So Wang walks off the plane and into a maelstrom of international scrutiny. This is not unfamiliar to him; in March he met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and promised to boost cooperation, despite international condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine.

This time, his arrival highlights the tug of war between the People’s Republic and the US, as the small island nations of the Pacific become geopolitical trophies. In Honiara his arrival celebrates the signing of a new security pact that allows the Solomons Government to ask China for police and military assistance, which may include ship visits and the use of Chinese forces to protect its personnel and projects.

This has been characterised as the first step towards a Chinese military base but, in truth, the pact is similar to existing arrangements with Australia and New Zealand. And it’s troops from those two neighbours that were invited to Honiara to patrol the streets and secure the peace after last year’s riots.

The Solomons security pact is not the only deal China is doing with Pacific nations. Last night the Chinese foreign ministry, in Beijing, confirmed Wang would visit the Solomons, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste – and while in the Pacific, he’ll hold video calls with the leaders of Micronesia, Cook Islands and Niue. ABC describes it as a trip of unprecedented scope and ambition.

Newsroom has obtained a five-year action plan sent by China to 10 Pacific islands before a meeting of foreign ministers on May 30. It shows China is seeking a region-wide deal covering policing, security and data communication cooperation.

The undated action plan promises to expand government and political exchanges and, critically, exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and non-traditional security. Despite the headline language around common development, the plan proposes “equal emphasis” on development and security.

China will appoint a Government Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries Affairs, “to move forward the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two sides”.

The plan has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, which says it showed China’s intent to control the region and “threatens regional stability”. David Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, has written to other Pacific leaders expressing fear that the deal could spark a new “Cold War” between China and the West.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already denounced the Solomons pact as “militarising the Pacific”, but the news of the Cook Islands and Niue meetings will cause further discomfort in Wellington. New Zealand bankrolls much of the health and infrastructure spending in the increasingly cash-strapped Cooks and Niue, its Defence Forces are responsible for their maritime security, and it represents them at the United Nations – so this is another step towards a more independent foreign policy by the two small nations.

NZ soldiers from Victor Company prepare to patrol Honiara. Photo: NZDF

Dr Anna Powles tells Newsroom that Wang is also expected to finalise a Vanuatu runway upgrade deal, make an offer of security assistance to Papua New Guinea during the upcoming elections, and potentially progress a rumoured security pact with Kiribati.

Wang will be on the ground in Kiribati for only four hours, largely because of the country’s strict Covid control measures. This morning, the ABC reports “long and intense” negotiations over this leg of his trip, and that Kiribati only agreed to the visit after China applied pressure.

But like the Solomon Islands, Kiribati has recently switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic, as China seeks to build its support in the Pacific region. This increased Chinese interest has disturbed the United States, and sparked its renewed engagement in the Pacific – which some regional leaders say had been absent for the 60 years since the departure of US troops at the end of World War II.

Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, says China is seeking a persistent presence in the Pacific. “That may be in the form of some kind of base in Solomon Islands or further afield in the Pacific,” she says. “It may not necessarily look exactly like a base; it could start with the pre-positioning of humanitarian relief stores and lead to mission creep. There is no doubt that China is interested in what kind of arrangements it could secure in the strategically valuable Kiribati.”

China’s foreign ministry published a fact sheet yesterday, disclosing that in the decade through to the end of 2021, it had invested US$2.72 billion in the 10 Pacific Island countries with which it has diplomatic relations, with more still promised.

Analysis by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, shows China had committed $1.5b in development aid grants to Pacific nations, in the 10 years up to the arrival of Covid – far less than Australia’s $21.8b or New Zealand’s $4.7b. 

But China topped the leaderboard with its $8.3b in loans – which has prompted repeated accusations from the US Government and military that it is engaging in “debt trap diplomacy”. 

When pressed for examples of China calling in debts, the US has only been able to cite the contentious example of China financing Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. That is disingenuous: while Sri Lanka did default on that loan, China never demanded the port as collateral. And neither has it called in any Pacific loans.

Many Pacific countries were quite heavily indebted, and Covid and the shutdown of their tourism industries has near bankrupted some. Indeed Cook Islands, in its Budget yesterday, forecast that its government debt would blow out to $230m next year. Its debt ratio has almost doubled to 65 percent of GDP.

But Terence Woods, a research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre at Australian National University, says only a couple of Pacific nations are heavily indebted to China. The others are in debt to other lending institutions, including private lenders. 

“A Chinese ‘debt trap’ could occur in some countries in the future,” he says. “But even that needn’t be that serious. If New Zealand or Australia were really worried, we could simply help pay off the debts of the countries in question. With the exception of Papua New Guinea, most Pacific countries are small, and so – compared to the money we have – their debts are quite small too.”

That’s echoed by Professor David Capie, the Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. “For all the hype about debt trap diplomacy, China’s aid to the Pacific actually declined significantly in the most recent year on record,” he says. “There is debt distress in the Pacific but in most of those cases the majority of debt is not to China but to multilateral agencies. That might change in the future but there’s little evidence of anything resembling debt trap diplomacy in the Pacific right now.”

Although there’s no real evidence of debt traps, China’s active interest in the Pacific has prompted the US administrations of Obama, Trump and now Biden to re-engage, south of the equator. 

This week, Joe Biden visited Japan to launch his new 13-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, with the express purpose of pushing back against Chinese influence in the region. 

“The United States is deeply invested in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “We’re committed for the long-haul, ready to champion our vision for a positive future for the region, together with friends and partners including the nations in this room.”

New Zealand was one of the nations in the room, at least virtually. In fact, Ardern patched in from Auckland International Airport, where she had checked in from her trip to (Covid symptoms permitting) meet Biden in Washington DC.

But despite New Zealand’s progressive steps back from the perceived (and indeed, real) colonialism of the past, it still can’t shake the perception that it demeaningly sees the Pacific as its back yard.

“A more active China is mostly welcomed by Pacific states,” Capie says. “It provides them with options. It’s an increasingly important trade partner and a welcome source of aid, including being willing to fund big infrastructure projects that donors like Australia and New Zealand haven’t been enthusiastic about in the past.”

That’s a view echoed by Sasako, heading into his Honiara newspaper office to prepare today for the most anticipated VIP arrival since William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in 2012.

He believes the time and money invested by China has scared the United States, as well as Australia and New Zealand, into overdue action in the Pacific. Till now, they had invested only hollow rhetoric.

“It’s no good talking – people want to see tangible evidence on the ground, rather than empty words,” he says. “And I know some people will judge me by saying, oh well, you’re too harsh. Maybe. But I’m talking reality. We have generations of young people who are growing up with no future. There is no hope for their future.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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