China is defending its new security pact with Solomon Islands, as Newsroom obtains detailed plans for a similar deal encompassing all 10 Pacific nations with which it has diplomatic ties.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has flown in from Beijing, for an unprecedented series of meetings across eight island nations – plus virtual meetings with the leaders of New Zealand realm nations Niue and Cook Islands.

The security arrangements are sparking concern in US-aligned nations including New Zealand. After meeting with the United Nations Secretary-General in New York, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern questioned the need for such pacts, expressing concern about the potential militarisation of the Pacific. “We don’t want an escalation of tension,” she said. “We want peace and stability.”

► Chinese visit steps up battle for the hearts and debts of 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

But in his first media interview, China’s Ambassador to New Zealand argues its police forces can help Pacific nations protect their institutions, and in particular Chinese nationals and investment that have been targeted in the past. “In Solomon Islands alone, the country has been subjected to four riots over the space of less than 20 years,” Wang Xiaolong says. “And every time, members of the local Chinese community have borne the brunt of what happened – the damages to the property and the loss of lives.

“And even today, as we speak, hundreds of Chinese nationals, members of the local Chinese community, are still homeless in Honiara. And they have yet to recover from what happened. So that’s part of the reason why the Solomon Islands has put forward a request for us to provide the law enforcement support for them to better maintain law and order. And we’ll be happy to do that.”

Back in New Zealand, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta pre-empted the China-Solomons meeting by announcing an extension of the New Zealand Defence Force deployment to Honiara. It’s a firm reminder that despite concerns about the Solomons allowing Chinese forces into their country, there are already Australian and Kiwi forces on the ground, patrolling the streets of the capital in response to last year’s fiery riots.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrives in Honiara, at the start of a nine-day trip across the Pacific, to conduct talks with island nations about security and development. Photo: Supplied

Mahuta held a Zoom call with her Solomons counterpart Jeremiah Manele, and reiterated concerns about the recently signed security agreement with China. She welcomed the Solomons minister’s assurances that the agreement would not lead to a Chinese military base.  

Today, Manele meets with Wang Yi – the first of a series of meetings across the Pacific for Wang. Newsroom understands Wang may also do 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 in a four-hour visit to the locked-down archipelago.

Overnight, Reuters reported details of a draft communique and 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.

“Nobody should underestimate the resolve and the capability of China to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity … And I hope nobody would want to test that resolve. Because if they want to do so, they will only do it at their own peril.”
– Wang Xiaolong, Chinese Ambassador

Newsroom has also obtained a copy of the documents. 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.

Ambassador Wang Xiaolong takes a different view on the significance of the foreign minister’s visit and security pacts.

“This visit is long overdue, because of Covid. And it’s such an important opportunity for us to talk about what we might do together as next steps, so that we could take our relationship to the next level to benefit both sides, particularly those in the Pacific region.”

He says the Solomons invited China to provide security assistance in response to last year’s riots through Honiara’s Chinatown, in which Chinese homes and businesses were razed to the ground and four people were killed. China was invited to offer security support, he argues, just as New Zealand and Australia were. 

“You’ve brought in your forces on some occasions. But I don’t think that is the equivalent of either Australia or New Zealand establishing a military base, or keeping a long-term military presence in the country.”

“We don’t attach political strings to our relationships with other countries.”
– Wang Xiaolong

There are no plans for a permanent military base, he says, and nothing in the agreement to suggest that. “This is about normal cooperation focused on law enforcement, and has nothing to do with militarisation. And it’s part of our overall effort to support the Solomon Islands in achieving sustainable development.”

He acknowledges the pact would allow China to send in its forces to protect Chinese investments, businesses and personnel. “But it will be triggered only when, and if, there’s a request that comes from the Solomon Islands side.”

He says the foreign minister’s video meeting with the 10 Pacific Island partners next week will follow up on a previous meeting between the nations in October, that agreed on a set of common guiding visions. The Pacific nations are some of the smallest in the world (Niue has just 1500 residents) and China is the biggest. But he says they are all developing nations, working towards common development.

The NZ Army’s Victor Company patrols Honiara in the aftermath of fiery and violent riots that killed four people and left some Chinese residents homeless. Photo: NZDF

“We would like to extend our support and assistance to the countries in this region, to eradicate poverty, to address the challenges of climate change, and pursue wider and longer term sustainable development,” Wang says.

“We respect the traditional influence and links and special roles of New Zealand, in the South Pacific region. And we would like to work together with partners like New Zealand. Both of us would like to see greater peace and stability in the region. And both of us would like to extend our own support to these countries on sustainable development.”

Solomon Islands and Kiribati are the latest Pacific nations to switch their diplomatic ties from Taiwan to mainland China – and China is now pouring aid into the two countries as well as negotiating security pacts.

“We have a longstanding relationship with the Pacific, but the aim of the partnership is common development, rather than anything else. We have no interest in the so-called great power strategic rivalry. Not in this region, not in any region of the world.”
– Wang Xiaolong

On the one hand Wang says China keeps development aid and politics separate: “We don’t attach political strings to our relationships with other countries.”

But on the other, he also acknowledges that China is only providing aid to the 10 Pacific nations with which it has diplomatic relations, and those relations are contingent on them not recognising Taiwan as a nation.

“The One China principle is widely recognised by members of the international community. And it’s the political foundation for our bilateral relationships with almost over 160 countries in this world. And we are glad that the Solomon Islands has come around in support of the One China principle, I think they have made the right choice.”

The red carpet treatment for China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on arrival this week in Honiara, Solomon Islands. Photo: Supplied

Taiwan is the Pacific island whose name barely passes Wang’s lips. Asked about Taiwan, he always responds in terms of “One China”.

The island state, which calls itself the Republic of China, was previously a big aid donor in the Pacific.

But China has put great pressure on the international community to reject Taiwan’s claim to nationhood. The only Pacific nations that still recognise Taiwan are the American-connected Marshall Islands and Palau, as well as Nauru and Tuvalu. The others all recognise Beijing; of those, only Fiji and Papua New Guinea maintain even indirect relations with Taiwan.

The draft action plan obtained by Newsroom requires Pacific countries to reaffirm that they “firmly abide by the One China principle”, and stresses the importance that they uphold the principle of non-interference of internal affairs in international relations.

“This year marks 25 years of diplomatic relations between the Cook Islands and the People’s Republic of China with some notable outcomes during that time which have supported our development journey as a nation.”
– Mark Brown, Cook Islands Prime Minister

This week, US President Joe Biden indicated the US would militarily defend Taiwan from any Chinese incursion, before he was forced by his State Department advisors to backpedal. The offical American position is that the US will support Taiwan to defend itself.

Wang notes the US efforts to walk back Biden’s statement. “We want to make it clear, as we have done on many occasions, that this is an issue of fundamental interest to China,” he says.

The US has previously affirmed the One China principle, he says, and he hoped Biden would stick to that. “And nobody – again, nobody – should underestimate the resolve and the capability of China to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“There’s been a lot of talk about sovereignty and territorial integrity recently, internationally. And I think people better be consistent and coherent. And again, nobody should underestimate our resolve.

“And I hope nobody would want to test that resolve. Because if they want to do so, they will only do it at their own peril.”

With the express purpose of pushing back against China’s widening influence in the region, Joe Biden launched an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework this week. 

Wang said Pacific nations shouldn’t be forced to take sides between China and the US, though he was cagey on whether Biden’s Framework was doing that. “I think if that is the case, I don’t think that will be welcome across the region, and I don’t think they will succeed.”

“We want quality, investment and infrastructure in our region. We don’t want militarisation. We don’t want an escalation of tension. We want peace and stability. So we will remain firm on those values.”
– Jacinda Ardern, NZ Prime Minister

He denied China was similarly forcing nations to take sides, with its aid going only to nations that backed its One China policy. “No, that’s something very different by nature. Because Taiwan is part of China, it’s an internal issue, it’s an issue that has to do with the territorial integrity of the country. So that has nothing to do with people taking sides.

“And if there is a side to be taken, I think most countries in this world have taken on the side of justice, on historical equity and on what is right.”

Many Pacific nations tread a fine line between the competing powers of China and the US, and New Zealand has been particularly concerned at Chinese infrastructure deals done by some of the Pacific nations in its immediate sphere of interest – Samoa is on Wang’s travel itinerary, while Niue and Cook Islands have signed up to China’s Belt & Road infrastructure initiative.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown confirmed he expected to hold a virtual meeting with Wang at the end of this week. The high-level talks would focus on bilateral co-operation in development and debt finance and, he confirmed, security. Other topics would be infrastructure, trade, fisheries, health and climate change.

The Cooks and Niue are defined as independent states in free association with New Zealand. They rely on New Zealand to provide hospital healthcare, patrol their waters and defend their borders, and represent them at the United Nations. But increasingly they are striking out on their own.

“This year marks 25 years of diplomatic relations between the Cook Islands and the People’s Republic of China with some notable outcomes during that time which have supported our development journey as a nation,” Brown tells Newsroom. “I look forward to discussing with Minister Wang how we might work with China towards supporting our most recently articulated national priorities as detailed in our Economic Recovery Roadmap and the 2022/23 Budget.”

That Budget showed the Cook Islands’ increasing indebtedness. Like others in the Pacific, the nation with a population of about 13,000 has been hit hard by the pandemic shutting down its tourism industry. Its debt ratio has almost doubled to 65 percent of GDP since it first shut its borders in March 2020, and government debt is forecast to blow out to $230m next year.

Analysis by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, shows China is the biggest lender in the Pacific, committing to $8.3b in loans over the past 10 years – which has prompted repeated accusations from the US Government and military that it is engaging in “debt trap diplomacy”. 

But Ambassador Wang Xiaolong says it is private lenders who are foreclosing developing nations’ debts, not China. He offers an assurance that China will not call in the debts of the developing Pacific nations with which it has diplomatic ties. “We’ve never done that. And we’re not going to do it in future.”

Since the pandemic hit, China has continued its development aid and loans into the Pacific. It provided personal protective equipment and vaccines to some countries, either as grant aid or on commercial terms.

Before he was appointed as ambassador, Wang was the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s coordinator for vaccine and PPE cooperation with other countries, particularly developing countries. He oversaw the shipment of container-loads of PPE and other health equipment to Pacific nations, early in the pandemic.

“When the pandemic broke out in China, we were fortunate to receive a lot of support from around the world, including some fellow developing countries,” he says. “So when the situation settled down in China, and when the pandemic situation worsened in the rest of the world, we started what we call the largest foreign aid operation in new China’s history, by providing first PPE and later vaccines to other countries, particularly our fellow developing partners.

“And we are, by far, the biggest supplier, both in terms of donations and on commercial terms, of PPEs to other countries, and vaccines as well. Over the course of about a year we have provided over 2 billion doses of vaccines, and mostly to developing countries and some in the South Pacific included. And we are very glad that we have made a small contribution to the efforts to bring the pandemic under control in different parts of the world.

“We have a longstanding relationship with the Pacific, but the aim of the partnership is common development, rather than anything else. We have no interest in the so-called great power strategic rivalry. Not in this region, not in any region of the world.”

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

Leave a comment