Talk of the Town
In a region where climate change and the ocean are among the most pressing security issues, China’s ability to deliver foreign aid results will likely be put to the test more than in any other region.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s diplomatic whirlwind tour of eight South Pacific Island nations last week kicked off heated discussions in the Chinese media and social media about China’s “penetrating the first island chain” and establishing a foothold in the South Pacific. There was visible online euphoria about China “pissing off” Australia and the United States with the move, particularly the recent signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands.
But winning over the South Pacific Island nations takes more than just great power posturing, as Matthew Wale, the Solomon Islands’ opposition party leader said, “We don’t want to be the grass trampled by the elephants.” The nations of the region bear the brunt of some of the most pressing global challenges wherein China’s role is acutely felt.
“As I have done with every Leader I meet, I sought a stronger commitment from China on climate action,” Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama described how he approached the meeting with Wang Yi. He also sought Chinese cooperation in fighting illegal fishing and sustainably managing the ocean.
The region’s priorities and needs are reflected in China’s Position Paper on the Mutual Respect and Co-development with Pacific Island Nations, published at the end of Wang’s visit on May 31. Nuclear non-proliferation, oceans environment and climate change make up points 3, 7 and 11 of the 15-point document. The question is how China would deliver on such items. Keeping end-of-century temperature rise under 1.5 degrees, a core demand for small island nations, cannot be met simply by donations to the island nations themselves. Emission cuts in China are far more significant in this aspect. Reining in Chinese fishing fleets on the high seas is also primarily a Chinese regulatory challenge.
In an interview with Global Times, Chen Dezheng, director of the China-Pacific Island Climate Cooperation Center, set up in April, emphasized that China had been “shouldering its climate responsibilities in line with the developmental stage it is at,” and the Pacific Island nations are “innocent victims of a climate consequence created largely by developed countries.” He further highlighted the island nations’ short term need for meteorological monitoring (in preparation for better response to climate disasters) and long term needs for infrastructure (preserving existing inhabitant areas while expanding them for a high-sea-level future), two areas that appear to hit the sweet spots of Chinese foreign aid capabilities.
The world is yet to see how China would harness its newly revitalized foreign aid toolbox to leave meaningful impacts in the South Pacific. The concrete action points in the Position Paper contain items including appointing a Chinese special envoy for South Pacific affairs, setting up a China-Pacific Islands disaster management cooperation mechanism, inviting Pacific Island nations to China-Island Nations oceans cooperation high-level forum and training climate specialists for countries in the region. In addition, multiple donations are to be made to the China-Pacific Island Nations Anti-Pandemic Fund, the Pacific Island Forum, and the Pacific Regional Environmental Program. One day ahead of Wang’s tour, China has also announced new fishing closure measures in the North Indian Ocean, a regulatory tool that has become a feature of Chinese fishing management on the high seas.
As the island nations have expressed concerns about being targeted solely for security considerations (as demonstrated by the region’s skepticism of the QUAD Initiative) and have failed to reach a consensus on a common security-trade pact with China, an issue-based and aid-based approach might make better sense. Winning hearts and minds in the region will test China’s diplomatic, foreign aid, investment and “branding” capabilities, shaped by implementing the BRI, for years to come.