Beijing Pursues Pacific Security, Data Bloc to Entrench Influence

Beijing Pursues Pacific Security, Data Bloc to Entrench Influence
FILE PHOTO: Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is seen on a screen as he attends a news conference via video link on the sidelines of the National People's Congress (NPC), in Beijing, China March 7, 2022. REUTERS/Ryan Woo
Daniel Y. Teng

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to the Pacific will coincide with attempts by Beijing to advance a South Pacific-wide deal with 10 island nations covering areas such as policing, security, and data communication, according to a leaked draft of the agreement.

The expansive pact is the latest step by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to entrench its influence and presence in the region—a situation which has left democratic nations scrambling to shore up alliances.

A draft communique of the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision and a five-year action plan—leaked to Reuters—has been circulated to the leaders of 10 Pacific nations, prior to the Chinese foreign minister's tour to eight nations in the region.

The communique proposes a China-Pacific Islands Free Trade Area, including support for climate change. The action plan meanwhile, includes ministerial dialogue on law enforcement and police cooperation in 2022.

"China will hold intermediate and high-level police training for Pacific Island Countries through bilateral and multilateral means," according to the document.

 This picture taken shows flags from the Pacific Islands countries being displayed in Yaren on the last day of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) on Sept. 5, 2018. (Mike Leyral/AFP via Getty Images)
This picture taken shows flags from the Pacific Islands countries being displayed in Yaren on the last day of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) on Sept. 5, 2018. (Mike Leyral/AFP via Getty Images)

On the security front, the CCP will push to bolster cooperation in the "fields of traditional and non-traditional security," including a pledge to work on data networks, cyber security, and smart customs systems.

In recent years, democratic nations have taken significant measures to distance key infrastructure from Chinese-owned telecommunications and tech companies like Huawei and TikTok, citing the ease at which Beijing can take advantage of vulnerabilities in these systems.

In fact, the U.S. and Australia have thwarted several attempts by Chinese companies to build submarine cables and take control of mobile networks in the region, including the $1.6 billion takeover bid of Digicel in October 2021.

Meanwhile, David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, has written to 21 Pacific leaders arguing against the regional pact over fears it could spark a new "Cold War" between Beijing and democratic nations.

He said it could draw Pacific nations "very close into Beijing's orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them," according to the letter sighted by Reuters.

"The practical impacts, however, of Chinese control over our communications infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space, aside from impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand," he said.

 Map of Australia's immediate neighbours in the western Pacific Ocean. (College of Asia and the Pacific/ANU/CartoGIS Services [CC BY-SA 4.0])
Map of Australia's immediate neighbours in the western Pacific Ocean. (College of Asia and the Pacific/ANU/CartoGIS Services [CC BY-SA 4.0])

Panuelo also warned that Beijing's provision of customs systems could lead to "biodata collection and mass surveillance of those residing in, entering and leaving our islands."

Ned Price, U.S. State Department spokesperson, said the Biden administration was aware of the plans and expressed concern about "reported agreements" that may have been negotiated in a "rushed, non-transparent process."

"It's worth noting that [People's Republic of China] has a pattern of offering shadowy, vague deals with little transparency or regional consultation in areas related to fishing, related to resource management, development assistance and more recently, even security practices," he said. Bribery and corruption are rife in the upper echelons of several Pacific nations.

"We don't believe that importing security forces from the [People's Republic of China] and their methods will help any Pacific Island country," he said. "Doing so can only seek to fuel regional and international tension and increase concerns over Beijing's expansion of its internal apparatus to the Pacific."

In contrast, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said he did not agree that further "cooperation" between Beijing and the South Pacific would trigger a new Cold War.

Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign minister will visit the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Timor Leste from May 26 to June 4. He will also hold virtual meetings with the leaders of Micronesia, Cook Islands, and Niue.

South Pacific expert Cleo Paskal noted that Beijing was only focusing on Pacific nations that had strong ties with the communist regime.

"The only fully independent [Pacific Island nations] he's skipping are ones that recognize Taiwan or have Compacts with U.S," she wrote on Twitter on May 25. "Even without them, pieces are in place to try to build a 'first island chain' to hem in [or] interdict Australia and New Zealand."

Wang is also set to meet with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare for the signing of "a number of key bilateral agreements."

The Solomon Islands has come under the spotlight in recent months over a security pact with Beijing that could open the door for its People's Liberation Army to station weapons, troops, and naval ships in the region.

Such a move could lead to militarisation and tensions similar to the South China Sea. The Solomons and its surrounding area is a strategic hotspot that has major influence over sea lanes—it was the site of extensive fighting during World War II between the allied forces and Imperial Japan.

Australia's freshly minted Foreign Minister Penny Wong has jetted off to meet with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Henry Puna, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, soon after news of the Chinese foreign minister's visit made headlines.

"Australia will listen to our Pacific partners as we work together to face our shared challenges and achieve our shared goals—including tackling climate change, pandemic recovery, economic development and regional security," she said in a statement.

"These commitments include taking real action on climate change at home and with our region, as well as increased development assistance and security cooperation, and reforming and expanding our Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme."

Daniel Y. Teng is based in Brisbane, Australia. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at [email protected].