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China’s Pacific Play Challenges New Australian Government

A pending 10-nation agreement signals China’s intent in the region, as Canberra seeks to keep its partners onside.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left) escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) on his arrival at the airport in Honiara on May 25.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left) escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) on his arrival at the airport in Honiara on May 25.
Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left) escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) on his arrival at the airport in Honiara on May 25. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at China’s influence in the Pacific, Ukraine peace efforts, and more news worth following from around the world.

Have tips or feedback? Hit reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.


China’s Pacific Play

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at China’s influence in the Pacific, Ukraine peace efforts, and more news worth following from around the world.

Have tips or feedback? Hit reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.


China’s Pacific Play

China’s efforts to upend Western predominance in the Pacific came into greater focus on Wednesday following the emergence of a new agreement intended to deepen Beijing’s ties to the region.

In a draft communique and five-year action plan sent to 10 Pacific island nations—the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue, and the Federated States of Micronesia—China has proposed new agreements on security and technology cooperation that have Western capitals worried.

The pending agreement is a direct challenge to the new Australian government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has vowed a response.

In a sign of the new government’s focus, his foreign minister, Penny Wong, heads to Fiji today.

She is followed close behind by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visits the Solomon Islands today as part of a seven-nation tour. He is set to discuss the plan with Pacific island leaders in Fiji on May 30.

Despite China’s interest, the region remains deep within Australia’s orbit, said Jonathan Pryke, an expert on the Pacific islands at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

“If you just look at the numbers, the level of engagement from all partners in the Pacific, Australia is still the largest donor, the largest trading partner, the largest migration partner to the region,” Pryke said. “This notion that China has just swept in and taken over the region is totally false.”

In a recent FP Live interview, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd blamed China’s progress in the region on the departing Scott Morrison government for alienating its neighbors.

To rebuild ties, Rudd recommends synchronizing Australia’s climate change policies with those of its island neighbors, many of which are particularly vulnerable to the catastrophic impacts of a warming planet.

China has maintained that its intentions in the region are benign, but Western policymakers see a threat.

“The Australians and Americans will be looking at these kinds of Chinese projects that are similar to what they’ve done in the South China Sea,” Mick Ryan, a recently retired two-star major general in the Australian Army, told Foreign Policy last week. “They were never going to be militarized, and then all of a sudden, guess what?”

While any Chinese investment is attractive for the region, not all leaders have welcomed the Chinese plan. Micronesian President David Panuelo has urged his fellow leaders to reject it, arguing in a letter that it would foster a “cold war” between China and the West.

The Pacific island states are far from bystanders in the rivalry between China and the West and know full well that there is value in playing the two sides off each other. “They wield their sovereignty very effectively. You can’t underestimate how sophisticated they can play the game of geopolitics,” Lowy’s Pryke said.

If Australia’s history is any indication, China is unlikely to supplant Western influence overnight.

“In the past, there have been times where Australia has been really heavy-handed, where we’re trying to get the region to do what we want and they still do what they want because they’re sovereign nations,” Pryke said. “And so, to think China’s just going to run roughshod over the whole region—well, that is quite revealing of how little people know about the Pacific.”


Keep an Eye On

Johnson’s future. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has once again faced opposition calls to resign following the publication of a report investigating allegations of COVID-19 rule-breaking among Downing Street staff that laid blame on senior leadership.

Just one member of Johnson’s Conservative Party has joined calls for the prime minister’s resignation. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said Johnson should resign once the war in Ukraine is over.

The scandal drags on as the British government is expected to enact a windfall tax on energy company profits in order to fund measures to address the country’s cost of living crisis.

Turkey’s NATO stance. Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said his country would continue to block Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO applications if “Turkey’s security concerns are not met with concrete steps in a certain time frame,” following five hours of discussions with officials from the Nordic countries on Wednesday.

Among other demands, Turkey is seeking to lift the arms embargo and for Sweden to sever ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, otherwise known as the PKK.

Ukraine peace efforts. Cyprus, Italy, and Hungary have urged European Union countries to include language calling for a cease-fire in Ukraine and peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict in a concluding statement to be released following an EU summit on May 30-31. A previous draft seen by Reuters gave no mention of peace talks.

The apparent divisions come as ways to end the war remain a subject of debate, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissing a suggestion by former U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger that Ukraine’s borders should be set at the pre-invasion status quo.

Philippines-China ties. Philippine President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Thursday that he would uphold a 2016 international court ruling that sided with his country in a dispute with China over maritime territory in the South China Sea. His comments come as analysts watch for signs that Marcos may be more conciliatory in his approach to China than his soon-to-be predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.

“We have a very important ruling in our favor,and we will use it to continue to assert our territorial rights. It is not a claim. It is already our territorial right,” Marcos said.

On China, he said he would speak with a “firm voice” but added: “We cannot go to war with them. That’s the last thing we need right now.”


FP Recommends

In the chaos of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Western effort to speed weapons to Ukraine’s front-line soldiers is a monumental effort in itself. FP’s Jack Detsch went behind the scenes of one of the “nerve centers” of that campaign at a military base in Germany, where U.S. and British troops help track weapons deliveries around the clock.


Odds and Ends

A prospective student club at Australia’s University of Adelaide has been denied affiliation with the student union over fears it may summon Satan to campus.

The Adelaide University Occult Club had provisionally registered as a club in 2021, but hopes of receiving funding and campus space appeared to be dashed after its formal application was not approved. The club, which claims to accommodate a variety of beliefs, plans to appeal the decision.

“Even if we did want to summon Satan, it’s not against university or union policy to do so, so it’s still not really grounds to reject us,” club president Ashley Towner told Australia’s ABC News.


That’s it for today

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. If you have tips, comments, questions, or corrections you can reply to this email.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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