China has put forward plans to dramatically expand security and economic cooperation with South Pacific nations, with one regional leader calling it a thinly veiled effort to lock them into “Beijing’s orbit.”
The wide-ranging draft agreement and five-year plan, both obtained by AFP Wednesday, will be the subject of discussion when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visits Pacific nations from Thursday.
It would offer ten small island states millions of dollars in Chinese assistance, the prospect of a China-Pacific Islands free trade agreement and access to China’s lucrative market of 1.4 billion people.
China would in return train local police, become involved in local cybersecurity, expand political ties, conduct sensitive marine mapping and gain greater access to local natural resources.
The “comprehensive development vision” is believed to be up for approval when Wang meets regional foreign ministers on May 30 in Fiji.
But it is already raising alarm bells in regional capitals.
In a stark letter to fellow Pacific leaders, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo warned the agreement seems “attractive” at first glance, but would allow China to “acquire access and control of our region.”
Calling the proposals “disingenuous,” Panuelo said they would “ensure Chinese influence in government,” Chinese “economic control” of key industries and allow “mass surveillance” of local phone calls and email.
The South Pacific is increasingly a theatre for competition between China and the United States - which has been the primary power in the region for the last century.
Beijing has sought to develop a greater military, political and economic presence in the South Pacific, but until now has made only limited and uneven progress.
The plan, if agreed, would represent a step change, facilitating everything from the deployment of Chinese police to visits by Chinese “art troupes.”
Flights between China and the Pacific Islands would be increased, Beijing would appoint a regional envoy, supply training for young Pacific diplomats and provide 2,500 government “scholarships.”