SYDNEY (Reuters) -China will seek a region-wide deal with almost a dozen Pacific island countries covering policing, security and data communication cooperation when Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosts a meeting in Fiji next week, documents seen by Reuters show.
A draft communique and five-year action plan sent by China to 10 Pacific islands ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers on May 30 has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, which says it showed China’s intent to control the region and “threatens regional stability”.
In a letter to 21 Pacific leaders seen by Reuters, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), David Panuelo, said his country would argue the “pre-determined joint communique” should be rejected, because he feared it could spark a new “Cold War” between China and the West.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was aware of Wang Yi’s plans and was “concerned that these reported agreements may be negotiated in a rushed, non-transparent process.”
He said recent security agreements reached by China had been conducted with little regional consultation, provoking concern in the United States and across the region.
“We don’t believe that importing security forces from the PRC and their methods will help any Pacific Island country,” he said. “Doing so can only seek to fuel regional and international tension and increase concerns over Beijing’s expansion of its internal apparatus to the Pacific.”
Wang will visit eight Pacific island nations that China has diplomatic ties with between May 26 and June 4.
He arrives on Thursday in the Solomon Islands, which recently signed a security pact with China despite objections from Australia, the United States, Japan and New Zealand, all of which fear it could upset regional security and give China a military foothold in the Pacific.
China rejects this, saying the pact is focused on domestic policing and criticism by Western countries was interference in the Solomon Island’s sovereign decision-making.
Asked to respond to the letter, first reported by Reuters, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular media briefing in Beijing that he was unaware of it, adding that China and South Pacific countries “are good friends and partners in mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit and common development”.
“I do not agree at all with the argument that cooperation between China and the South Pacific island countries will trigger a new Cold War,” he added.
Wang’s visit would “consolidate mutual political trust, expand practical cooperation, deepen people-to-people ties and jointly build a closer community of destiny among China’s Pacific island countries”.
The FSM government, which has a defence agreement with the United States as well as an economic cooperation agreement with China, declined to comment to Reuters on the letter.
Price, the U.S. State Department spokesman, said Washington respected the ability of regional countries to make sovereign decisions in the best interests of their people, while adding, referring to China:
“It’s worth noting that PRC has a pattern of offering shadowy, vague deals with little transparency or regional consultation in areas related to fishing, related to resource management, development assistance and more recently, even security practices.”
A region-wide agreement covering security and trade between China and Pacific islands would represent a shift in Beijing’s focus from bilateral relations to dealing with the Pacific on a multilateral basis.
China circulated the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision draft document, as well as a five-year action plan, ahead of the Fiji meeting.
It states China and the Pacific islands will “strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and non traditional security”.
“China will hold intermediate and high-level police training for Pacific Island Countries through bilateral and multilateral means,” the document says.
The action plan outlines a ministerial dialogue on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation in 2022, and China providing forensic laboratories.
The draft communique also pledges cooperation on data networks, cyber security, smart customs systems, and for Pacific islands to “take a balanced approach” on technological progress, economic development and national security.
Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, which is barred from 5G networks run by several U.S allies, has been repeatedly thwarted in attempts to build submarine cables or run mobile networks in the Pacific by Australia and the United States, which have offered rival bids for the sensitive infrastructure, citing national security.
The communique also proposes a China-Pacific Islands Free Trade Area, and support for action on climate change and health.
In his letter to other leaders, Panuelo said the communique would draw Pacific islands that have diplomatic relations with China “very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them”.
He highlighted the risk of being caught in conflict as tensions rise between the United States and China over Taiwan.
“The practical impacts, however, of Chinese control over our communications infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space, aside from impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand,” he said.
China’s provision of customs systems would lead to “biodata collection and mass surveillance of those residing in, entering and leaving our islands”, he added.
He was also critical of Australia’s lack of action on climate change.
New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pledged this week to increase climate financing to Pacific islands, saying climate change was their main economic and security challenge.
“China has made its intentions clear,” Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said when asked about the Reuters report.
“So too are the intentions of the new Australian government. We want to help build a stronger Pacific family. We want to bring new energy and more resources to the Pacific.”
Wong, who travels to Fiji on Thursday, has pledged to increase opportunities for Pacific island citizens to work and migrate to Australia.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Additional reporting by Martin Pollard in Beijing and Daphne Psaledakis, Simon Lewis and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Bernard Orr)