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Pacific wrestles with the great China-US divide


By Henryk Szadziewski

Pacific Islands Forum members face challenging conversations about the prickly US-China relationship and its effect on the region.

On Oct. 18, 2023, two statements were made at the United Nations — one condemning China’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and the other backing China’s position in these regions. The first statement, led by the UK, included 51 countries, with seven Pacific Islands Forum members among them: Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Fiji, although Suva later backpedaled and withdrew that support. The second statement, read by Pakistan, had 72 signatories, with Forum members Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu purportedly in support of China. However, the remaining three members that are also UN states, the Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa and Tonga, chose not to participate in either motion. This UN vote occurred less than three weeks before the 52nd Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting in the Cook Islands.

While Pacific leaders will have a full plate with the climate crisis, post-pandemic economic recovery, and maritime security most likely on a challenging agenda, like it or not, they’ll find it hard to avoid speculation over China and U.S. influence in the region.


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The theme of the meeting invokes the Pacific Way concept articulated by Fiji’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

The Pacific Way has become emblematic of regional values, such as consultation and consensus, that build a collective approach to regional challenges.

However, as University of Hawaiʻi professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka writes, “disagreements amongst PIF member countries is not new,” and following the contrasting UN statements, internal differences over the globe’s most powerful political forces are a reality.

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna has formulated the task ahead for Forum leaders.

At a gathering in Washington D.C. in September, he said: “If I’m honest we must realize that the strategic interest and attention we enjoy today will not last forever. And we must capitalize on it in a manner that will ensure sustainable gains for our region and for our people, for decades to come.”

In other words, Forum members, particularly the 14 independent island states, should mitigate the distractions and priorities of geostrategic competitors in Oceania, accept internal disagreements over China and the United States, and collectively strategize on leveraging the gaze of the powerful toward the core issues of climate and livelihoods.

To be clear, the disruptive aspects of geostrategic competition originate in Washington and Beijing, even if Chinese and American officials talk about the Pacific Islands states as having the freedom to choose their security and development partners.

Just in the past 18 months, the U.S. and China have made significant attempts to bypass regional processes, particularly the Forum. In May 2022, Foreign Minister Wang Yi pressed China’s 10 diplomatic partners to agree to a “Common Development Vision” that included cooperation on a wide range of traditional and non-traditional security issues. Regional leaders passed; however, the deal would have established a multilateral group founded on diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. One month later, in June, the White House announced the establishment of the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the UK. A group of states committed “to support prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific.” However, Greg Fry, Tarcisius Kabutaulaka and Terence Wesley-Smith conclude the Partners in the Blue Pacific “runs roughshod over existing mechanisms devised by Pacific island leaders to shape their interactions with larger powers and attempts to impose a new hierarchy of preferred ‘partners’ from outside.”


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The U.S. has followed up not only with a Pacific Partnership Strategy, but also two summits in Washington DC, one in September 2022 and another in September 2023, between President Biden and political leaders from Pacific Island states. Gauging the impact of China and the United States’ sidestepping of the Forum is no easy matter. Yet, since May 2022, Pacific leaders have offered more strident opinions about these global forces.

In March, David Panuelo, with three months remaining in office as Micronesia's president, wrote a letter addressed to the FSM congress and state governors outlining China’s gray zone activities, including bribery and political interference.

In June 2023, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. called for greater U.S. help in deterring China’s “unwanted activities." Three months later, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare explained his absence at the second DC summit as wanting to avoid a lecture from U.S. officials, adding that he went to the first summit and “nothing came out of it.”


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The comments followed praise for China’s Belt and Road Initiative during a speech at the UN General Assembly.

All this attention lavished on and by China and the United States has happened since May 2022. The last Forum Leaders Meeting, in Suva, was in July 2022, and the topic of China was among those that dominated the meeting.

The time may have come to set aside differences over these ultimately transient forces and, as Henry Puna urges, remain focused on outcomes that benefit people and not power.

Since December 2022 and the election of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, Fiji has undergone a process of reevaluating its relationship with China (and at times the US), which overlooks Beijing as a security partner and values its contributions to trade, investment and infrastructure.

Difficult as that process may be — and Fiji has come under pressure — the Forum may consider how to collectively foreground its priorities and deescalate the burden of choice.

China and the U.S. and its allies may have created confusion in the region and muddied the waters regarding who the good actors are, but there are compelling reasons to maintain regionalism amid such pressures.

Perhaps in addition to the regional principle of “friends to all and enemies to none” toward external partners, this phrase should be added: “friends to ourselves first.”

Henryk Szadziewski is an affiliate at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He has a Ph.D. in Geography from his research focused on Chinese state interventions in Oceania and US policy towards the Pacific Islands. Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.


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