Leaders from nine Pacific Island nations have vowed to deepen their relationship with Beijing, fight the pandemic, and continue collaborating on major infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The pledge comes amid an ongoing tug-of-war between Beijing and democratic allies in the South Pacific region.
In late May, top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials held a virtual summit called the Pacific Island Countries—China Political Leadership Dialogue attended by the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Niuē, Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Cook Islands.
Song Tao, head of the International Liaison Department of the CCP, chaired the meeting and read a letter from Chinese leader Xi Jinping before conveying the Chinese regime’s gratitude to the Island nations’ for their “valuable support” of Beijing’s interests.
The International Liaison Department is controlled by the Central Committee—one of the most powerful political organs in China—and is tasked with “gathering intelligence on foreign politicians and political parties,” according to China expert Anne-Marie Brady.
Song added that the Chinese regime would continue to strengthen the development strategies of the Pacific nations and jointly expand the BRI to grow trade, according to Chinese state-run media.
The Pacific leaders, in turn, “warmly congratulated” the CCP for reaching the 100th anniversary of its founding (1921) and commended the Chinese authorities for assisting the Islands in fighting the CCP virus (also known as the novel coronavirus).
In attendance were Prime Ministers James Marape (Papua New Guinea), Frank Bainimarama (Fiji), Manasseh Sogavare (Solomon Islands), Pohiva Tui’i’onetoa (Tonga), Bob Loughman (Vanuatu), and Presidents Taneti Maamau (Kiribati) and David Panuelo (Federated States of Micronesia). Representatives of the Cook Islands were also present.
The leaders vowed to continue developing close relations with Beijing, deepen exchanges on governance issues, and adhere strictly to the one-China policy—a policy that Beijing claims gives the CCP control over Taiwan.
Further, the Pacific leaders vowed to continue working together on fighting the pandemic and “cooperation in areas such as infrastructure development.”
Issues such as Beijing’s BRI and recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state have been one of many factors dividing the South Pacific region between the CCP and democratic allies.
In May, Samoa’s incoming Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa vowed to scrap a US$100 million BRI port development near the nation’s capital. Her stance was a major shift from Samoa’s incumbent leader Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who, for most of his two-decade-long rule, has maintained close ties with the CCP.
The BRI is Beijing’s trillion-dollar infrastructure development fund that has been accused of taking advantage of developing nations by offering predatory loans that often leave them heavily indebted to the Chinese regime.
Consequently, several countries have handed over key assets to Beijing in recent years in exchange for defaulting on these loans. One notable example was in 2017 when the Sri Lankan government agreed to hand over its Hambantota Port to the CCP on a 99-year lease after agreeing to convert its $1.4 billion debt into equity.
All nine nations at the recent summit are signatories to the BRI.
The issue has also caused a deep divide in the Solomon Islands, where the provincial leader of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, has openly opposed the federal government’s efforts to build closer ties with Beijing.
He has also taken aim at the BRI, telling a crowd in 2019 that “China overwhelmingly targets destitute countries like the Solomon Islands that cannot pay their debts and loans. China has confiscated parts or entire seaports from countries that are unable to pay their debts.”
Suidani has instead moved to build stronger ties with Taiwan and is currently visiting the island.
Only in 2019 did the Solomon Islands’ federal government (and neighbouring Kiribati) drop diplomatic relations with Taiwan for Beijing.
Beijing’s influence in the South Pacific has been bolstered by its extensive vaccine donation efforts and loan schemes.
A Lowy Institute report found the CCP was the third-largest donor to the Pacific in 2019, following in the footsteps of the number one donor, the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
The onset of the pandemic, which has damaged many Pacific Island economies, has only accelerated the popularity of Chinese-backed loans.
“China is very willing to lend money to any Pacific Island nation. As much as Australia and New Zealand have encouraged the islands to look to them first, it’s been a lot easier getting money out of China,” Fletcher Melvin, president of Cook Islands’ Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Australian government has pushed hard to combat Beijing’s influence in the region through both economic and military means.
In recent months, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government committed to spending $300 million this year (US$ 232 million) on infrastructure projects in the Pacific region, including loans and grants for upgrading telecommunications, transport, health facilities, and power projects.
The government is also seeking to establish a “Pacific Islands Regiment” to strengthen defence ties in the region.