The Pacific Influence War – Part 5

Alessandro Ponzetto | May 27th, 2022

Another recurring theme which we have not covered in a while is how China, on one side, and the Quad, on the other, is vying for influence across the region. One of the most important examples in this regard is what happened with the Solomon Islands, although it is by far not the only case.

Since Biden’s trip to Asia and the Quad meeting held earlier this week, a lot has happened. To start with, Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, is having a trip of his own in the Pacific Islands, seeking a region-wide security deal with the various island-nations. The draft of the joint statement, which is meant to be released on May 30, has already been overtly rejected by one of the countries in question.

In a letter to 21 Pacific leaders seen by Reuters, Federated States of Micronesia president David Panuelo said his nation would argue the “pre-determined joint communique” should be rejected, because he fears it could spark a new “Cold War” between China and the West.

This specific reference is important, because of the criticisms China has levied on Quad et al is the ‘Cold War mentality’ and other similar comments, so it will be important to see what exactly the joint statement in question is (or rather Beijing’s statement, by the looks of it).

Anyway, Wang Yi is not the only Foreign Minister touring the islands, as the newly appointed Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, is also doing the same. Before the elections, one of the criticisms levied on Labor (especially by former PM Morrison) was them being too close to China, but this does not seem to be the case.

In actuality, the new Australian government has hit the ground running when it comes to China itself, and Wong’s trip is one of the more overt hints. Australia became aware of this expanded security deal while Albanese and Wong were flying back home from the Quad meeting, and she almost immediately flew to counter Wang Yi’s, with the first destination being Fiji.

The indirect confrontation between these two important players may dictate the equilibrium in the region, but it will be difficult to compare the performance of the two ‘duellists’. This is because the details of Wang Yi’s trip are shrouded in secrecy, with all carefully planned by Beijing, including press conferences. For example, in the press conference in Honiara with President Sogavare, only CCTV will be allowed to ask one question, leaving all the others empty handed.

Speaking of the press conference, this is the reporting of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

There is very little to comment on, as there are no practical details available. Still, it is consistent with how Wang Yi has behaved in previous trips, and the overall objective of keeping the cards close to the chest.

Still, there is someone else that is far from keeping the cards close to the chest: Japan. Today, Nikkei Asia reported that the government is going to allow export of defence equipment, including jets and missiles, to 12 countries. The list of countries is particularly interesting, as there are clear groupings:

  •          Quad members (US, Australia and India)
  •          Team Tempest (UK and Italy)
  •          ASEAN countries, which have concerns with China (Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines)
  •          European country with vested interest in the region (France)
  •          Outlier (Germany)

Aside from Germany, which is an outlier seeing its behaviour, there is a common theme linking the other 11 countries: create as much commonality with like-minded countries, in order to provide a more solid counter to China’s actions. Of course it will take time, but it is the most overt sign yet of a return of Japan in the defence scene, as this may allow Tokyo to more sustainably expand its military.

There is however so much more from Japan here, as Kishida has continued its diplomatic efforts after a rather successful Quad meeting. Specifically, he held talks with PM Lee of Singapore, who deemed Japan as a key partner to protect regional peace. The two also signed a Memorandum of Cooperation, which aims to bolster the flow of entrepreneurs and enterprises between both countries, by promoting greater access to start-up and innovation ecosystems.

Then there is of course the US, as Blinken had a press conference yesterday, but it is best to cover that separately, in conjunction with the Indo Pacific Economic Framework. This is because one intent of IPEF seems to be a leverage to boost ties with countries in the region. We will focus on this specific aspect next, while providing updates on the other events mentioned today.

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