Fiji will join the U.S. in a wide-ranging economic initiative, making it the first Pacific Island country to do so as competition heats up between Beijing and Washington for influence in the Asia-Pacific.
News of Fiji becoming the 14th country to join President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework came as China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare eight-day tour to Pacific island countries this week. He is looking to push for similar security deals that Beijing struck in April with the Solomon Islands, while also expanding trade ties.
“A close partner to the United States and a leader in the region, Fiji will add vital value and perspective to IPEF, including on our efforts to tackle the climate crisis and build a clean economy that creates good paying jobs,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Biden launched the IPEF earlier this week during his first trip to Asia, in a bid to assert US leadership. The framework is the most significant US effort to engage Asia on economic matters since former President Donald Trump in 2017 withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement negotiated under the Obama administration.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a briefing that any initiative should be conducive to peace and stability instead of artificially setting up barriers and creating confrontation. Asia Pacific “should not become a chess board for larger political contest,” he added.
“If it’s all about optics, then what you actually want is a lot of members, a lot of potential members,” said Deborah Elms, Singapore-based executive director of the Asian Trade Centre. “And because it’s the clean economy you could have pulled in, I would imagine, half of the Pacific island nations.”
Tensions between China and US allies in the Pacific have ratcheted up in the past month, after the Chinese government said in April it had signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. While the final wording of the deal hasn’t been released, an earlier draft version which was leaked on social media would allow Beijing to deploy security personnel to the Solomons in the wake of domestic unrest.
It would also allow Chinese warships safe harbor in the Solomon Islands, just 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the coastline of Australia.
The Pacific is a vital geostrategic region to both the US and China. For Beijing, the string of small nations are important diplomatic partners who can help its agenda in the United Nations, while the US and Australia rely on the Pacific to protect their security and trade ties.
This has all now come to the fore as news reports emerged that China was seeking to strike security and economic agreements with about 10 Pacific nations, dramatically expanding Beijing’s cooperation with the region.
“China does still know how to use ‘carrots’ as well as ‘sticks’ in pursuing global influence,” said Kurt Tong, a partner at The Asia Group and former US ambassador. “Many of China’s strongest diplomatic offerings come in fields related to business and economics.”
Less than 72 hours after being sworn in on Monday, Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong flew to Fiji to meet with the country’s prime minister ahead of the Chinese delegations’ visit to the island. In a speech delivered on Thursday, she made a veiled jab at China’s diplomacy in the region, saying Australia’s partnership “won’t come with strings attached.”
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a media briefing in Honiara on the same day that China would engage with Pacific Island countries on the grounds of mutual respect, openness and inclusiveness.
In a reference to Wong’s speech, Wang added that China didn’t interfere in Pacific nations’ internal affairs and said its support also came with no strings attached. He is visiting Kiribati on Friday on his first official visit since both countries resumed diplomatic ties in 2019.
Kiribati’s envoy to China David Teaabo told the Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times that 10 agreements for development will be signed and he didn’t see China’s presence in the country as competition to the US and Australia.
“My take is that you have a better development if you have more friends,” Teaabo told Global Times. “The higher the number of people around me, the higher the chance for my needs to be addressed.”