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China loses its way in the South Pacific

Wang Yi's eight-nation tour fails to impress

| China
Wang Yi, left, lock arms with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on May 26: Wang's strategic overreach put him off balance.   © Xinhua/AP

Michael Field is a veteran Pacific writer and journalist.

After China and Samoa established diplomatic ties in 1976, there was no grand ceremony. Instead, Beijing sent a troupe of acrobats from Chongqing to mark Samoa's 1977 independence day celebrations.

Chinese soft power triumphed, with two-thirds of the country's then population of just over 150,000 attending the troupe's open-air shows, indifferent to references to the late Chairman Mao Zedong and the downfall of the Gang of Four.

New Zealand diplomats complained that the Chinese acrobats were merely playing to Samoan preferences for movies featuring Kung fu and Bruce Lee.

Four decades on, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has just completed an eight-nation tour of the Pacific as part of an attempt to add to its recent signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands.

But instead of wowing the region with a display of sure-footed diplomatic gymnastics, Wang's strategic overreach put him off balance, much to the irritation of his hosts.

Armed with Xi Jinping's mantra that all countries, big and small, are equal, Wang assumed that each Pacific country wanted the same thing. And, touting a document titled "China and Pacific Island Countries" -- code for recognizing Beijing, not Taipei, an issue that barely engages most Pacific states -- Wang made no acknowledgment of the fact that he was visiting individual countries.

For while Pacific island leaders like to talk about consensus, it is a custom more honored in the breach.

The main regional political grouping, the Pacific Islands Forum, is currently being dominated by a power struggle between Micronesia and Polynesia leadership. That alone should have been enough to alert Beijing to the fact that Samoa sees itself as something different to the Solomon Islands; or that Kiribati is not just another Tonga.

When the forum meets again, penciled in for next month but not confirmed, there will be other more important issues on their agenda. Wang offered a casual approach to the main one: climate change, with most Pacific states seeing themselves as badly affected by carbon-emitting nations like China and Australia.

China assumed that Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama was the agreed Pacific spokesman. If Wang had done his homework, he would have known that Bainimarama was the only spokesperson by default thanks to COVID-19 restrictions.

During his first decade as prime minister, during which he ruled by force after instigating the 2006 coup, Bainimarama not only refused to attend forum summits, but also he tried to have Australia and New Zealand removed from the forum altogether.

Samoa's Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, who has only been in office for a year, rejected Wang's overtures outright: "We have not made a decision as we did not have enough time to look at it," she said, referring to Wang's policy paper.

China's paper called for extraterritoriality, including in law enforcement. China already has a similar deal in Fiji, where in 2017, they raided without Fiji warrants and took away 77 Chinese citizens.

China wants "a more friendly policy environment for cooperation between enterprises" and special legal treatment for Chinese citizens, echoing the European colonial era when companies like Burns Philp, Colonial Sugar and Deutsche Handels und Plantagen Gesellschaft ruled waves. Nowadays, Beijing would like to see Huawei Technologies, instead of Cable and Wireless, controlling cables, just like the Western powers controlled central Shanghai in the 1930s.

The explosive growth of Chinese fishing in the region over the past two decades has caused considerable political alarm. With the high seas and various exclusive economic zones currently dominated by Chinese fleets, Beijing's bid to sign Pacific countries up to a document that would have allowed more Chinese fishing was never likely to succeed.

Wang made matters worse for himself by trying, in each country he visited, to exclude local journalists from asking questions. Hiring a hall for a press conference and excluding locals is, in the Pacific, the height of rudeness and came off as somewhat imperial.

Nor had Beijing factored in the Australian general elections. Even as Wang flew between countries, a new, Pacific-friendly Australian government emerged.

Instead of meeting with compliant Pacific leaders, Wang was lagging behind a faster-moving Penny Wong, Australia's new foreign minister, whose own island-hopping tour had better optics. China also overlooked that Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea also have elections this year, where cutting deals with Beijing is not popular with voters.

Penny Wong, right, shakes hands with Fiame Naomi Mata'afa in Apia, Samoa, on June 2: Wong's island-hopping tour had better optics. (Handout photo from Australian Department of Foreign Affairs)   © AP

When Xi visited the region in November 2014, he offered soft loans to Tonga, still struggling to recover from political riots in 2006. That debt remains a burden, but Wang ignored pleas for relief and Tonga continues to life on the edge of default. The best Wang could do was get an audience with King Tupou VI, where he promised that Chinese workers would fly in to help clear up the royal graveyard.

Wang flew home with multiple bilateral economic and development agreements, but not the big one. He was told the Pacific would discuss it again, but given that Pacific cultures do not like to hurt people's feelings, the real answer is most probably a no.

There was one line in Wang's paper calling on Pacific countries to accept five to 10 art troupes from Guangdong. Perhaps a civil servant in Beijing could remember what happened in 1977 when those Chinese acrobats created such a positive impression. Perhaps they could work for Xi, too?

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