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China’s geopolitical setback in the Pacific

CChinese diplomacy For much of last year, progress in the Pacific seemed unstoppable. In April 2022, it signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, laying the groundwork for Chinese military operations there. Later this spring, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi struck several more deals during an unprecedented eight-nation Pacific tour. While he did not fully nail the broader regional security deal, he made it clear that China would continue to push for it. “Don’t get too nervous,” he told Pacific leaders at the time.

Now, Chinese officials are more likely to get nervous. They suffered one of their worst setbacks in the region on Jan. 25 when Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka abruptly announced he would terminate a security agreement with China dating back to 2011. Work in Fiji for a maximum of six months at a time. “There is no need for us to continue,” Mr Rabuka told fiji times. “Our system is different.”

Worse for China, Mr Rabuka said police from Australia and New Zealand could continue to work in Fiji because their political system was similar to that of the Pacific island nation. His decision is not just a blow to China’s efforts to secure a strategic foothold in a region long dominated militarily by the United States and its allies. It also undermines China’s efforts to present its political system as a superior alternative to liberal democracy. Meanwhile, China’s maritime neighbors in the South China Sea are fighting back.

Mr Rabuka’s actions appear to be aimed at both establishing his own authority at home and at great power competition. His predecessor, Frank Bainimarama, struck a deal with China in 2011 to make up for his then poor relations with the US and its regional allies Australia and New Zealand. All three countries imposed sanctions on Fiji after Bainimarama seized power in a coup in 2006. They lifted the sanctions after he won a democratic election in 2014, but he continued to pursue economic and security ties with China.

Mr Bainimarama lost elections last December. He initially conceded defeat but later reversed course, calling on senior officials to reject the new government’s demands for them to resign. After the election, the police chief called in the armed forces, citing the risk of race unrest. That has sparked fears of another coup. Fiji has had four since independence from Britain in 1970 – twice by Mr Rabuka. The police chief, who is close to Mr Bainimarama, was suspended on the same day the deal with China was scrapped. Concerns about political instability in Fiji persist.

Even so, ending the deal with China is a geopolitical victory for the United States and its allies. China has recently sought to upgrade its ties in the Pacific to counter U.S. influence and build a military foothold there. The Pentagon said it may have approached Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands about establishing a base, although China denies seeking the base. China has also recently donated more combat-related kits to Pacific nations, donating a naval vessel to Fiji in 2018 and 47 military vehicles in 2022. A Chinese police liaison officer has been stationed in Fiji since 2021. The Chinese embassy in Fiji responded to Mr Rabuka’s decision by saying that no external force would disrupt their military and police cooperation.

Since China signed the Solomon Islands agreement, the United States and its allies have stepped up diplomatic and economic engagement in the region. In September, President Joe Biden hosted 12 Pacific leaders (including Mr Bainimarama) at the White House. They agreed to work together to build a region where “democracy can flourish”. The United States has also pledged an additional $810 million in aid to the region.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has also been active, visiting several Pacific countries, including Fiji. In October, Australia and Fiji signed an agreement to expand police cooperation and deploy troops on each other’s territories. Meanwhile, Beijing is pushing ahead with an agreement with the Solomon Islands that sent 32 police officers to China for training in October. In November, China also held virtual meetings with police officials from six Pacific countries. No doubt it will offer more. For now, though, last year’s Pacific foray is starting to look a little over the top.

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