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China proposes South Pacific regional free trade and security deal

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China is launching a major initiative to expand security and free trade cooperation with South Pacific countries. The United States, Australia and the Federated States of Micronesia take a dim view of this agreement, which is called a “common development vision”. For the latter, China is trying to expand its influence in defiance of the future member countries of the treaty.

China has launched a major initiative to expand security and free trade cooperation with South Pacific countries, already decried by several heavyweights in the region such as Australia and the United States. The draft agreement and the five-year plan, which AFP was able to consult on Wednesday, will be discussed during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to several countries in the region to from Thursday. According to these documents, China intends to offer ten island states in the region millions of dollars in assistance, the prospect of a free trade agreement as well as the possibility of accessing the vast Chinese market with its 1.4 billion of inhabitants.

In return, China would train police forces and get involved in local cybersecurity. It could also carry out sensitive nautical mapping operations and gain better access to local natural resources. This “common vision of development”, as the project is called, could be adopted on May 30, during a meeting scheduled in Fiji between Wang Yig and the region’s foreign ministers. Upon his arrival in the Solomon Islands on Thursday, the Chinese diplomat asked not to “interfere”, or “disrupt” China’s “cooperation with Pacific island countries”.

“They are no one’s backyard. All Pacific island countries have the right to make their own choice instead of just following others,” he said, also denying any desire to Beijing to set up a military base in the Solomon Islands.

Rivalry with the United States

The South Pacific has become in recent months a theater of strong rivalry between China and the United States, a great power in the Pacific for several decades. Beijing is seeking to increase its military, political and economic presence there, but has so far made only limited and uneven progress. The cooperation plan, if accepted, could on the other hand represent a major turning point, facilitating in particular a certain number of police or military operations. In addition, flights between China and the Pacific Islands would be multiplied, Beijing would appoint a regional envoy, provide training for young Pacific diplomats and provide 2,500 government “scholarships”.

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But already, some capitals have begun to sound the alarm about the draft regional agreement. The project demonstrates a “China that seeks to increase its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War”, new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese warned on Thursday. . He announced an ‘escalation’ of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific, with around A$500 million in aid for defense training, maritime security and infrastructure to combat the effects of climate change .

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong was on her way to Fiji on Thursday to discuss those plans. For his part, US State Department spokesman Ned Price advised South Pacific countries to be wary of this “obscure” deal with China. “We are concerned that these agreements could be negotiated in a rushed and non-transparent process,” he said on Wednesday, while reminding that nations would make their own choice.

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In a vehement letter to his colleagues in the South Pacific, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo warned against a deal that was “appealing” on the face of it, but likely to give China the means “to gain access and control over our region”.

“Control” and “monitoring”

Describing the proposals as “insincere”, David Panuelo believes that they would “guarantee Chinese influence within the government”, Chinese “economic control” over certain key industries as well as “mass surveillance” of telephone calls and local email messages. The leader sees it as an attempt to “intrinsically link all of our economies and societies to them” to serve his long-term goal: “to take Taiwan, peacefully if possible, by war if necessary”.

Micronesia – a federation that brings together four countries made up of more than 600 small islands and atolls on the line of the Equator – has enjoyed since the 1980s a status of free association with the United States, which guarantees it cooperation in the area of ​​development as well as military protection.

But other countries in the region could on the other hand be tempted by the possible positive effects of the draft agreement with China. The Solomon Islands and Beijing thus announced at the end of April the signing of a security pact with vague outlines which Canberra and Washington fear that it will allow Beijing to install a military presence in the archipelago.

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