Is Beijing’s Relative Position Declining in the Pacific?

CommentaryThe relative strategic positions of the two dominant dynamic elements of the Pacific competition—China and the United States—appear to be moving incrementally in the U.S. favor as each undergoes massive (and more important) internal “deconstruction.”The United States faces a pivotal election in November 2024; China faces economic and possibly political collapse at home.Their internal challenges seem more likely to determine the overall outcome of China–U.S. competition. Still, the broader Pacific context is transforming at a relatively glacial pace, now nudging incrementally in favor of the U.S./Western position. The April 17 election in the Solomon Islands and the subsequent May 2 election by Parliament there of the new prime minister were just one recent “incremental” step in that process.The anticipated parliamentary election of former Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele to replace outgoing Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Mr. Manele’s party colleague, reflected the April 17 election outcome, which cost Mr. Sogavare heavily in terms of seats. Mr. Manele, with Mr. Sogavare’s parting help, created a new coalition to give it sufficient votes to form a government, but it was clear that the days of Mr. Sogavare’s ability to act decisively had passed.Incoming Prime Minister Manele, who was a part of Mr. Sogavare’s ability to open the Solomons to China, said that the Beijing component of the national foreign policy would continue. However, it is clear that, in the delicate climate of coalitions of expediency (by the government and the opposition), Beijing’s influence has declined a notch. Indeed, it showed that Beijing’s active political maneuvering in the Solomons, as with much of the South Pacific, has been losing momentum. And that the United States and Australia, in particular, have been gradually recovering their postures in the region and among the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) countries.Related StoriesSignificantly, it was the New Zealand Defence Force that provided the logistics to conduct the Solomon Islands elections, not China (nor, indeed, Australia or the United States).In essence, the Solomons situation—which had been a tinderbox of concern to the PIF leaders generally—has calmed down, and internal stressors seem likely to ease. This will be significant in the runup to the 53rd PIF Summit, which will be held on Aug. 26–30 in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Now, attention will likely be focused on security challenges within the PIF member state Papua New Guinea (PNG).The PNG government signed a number of security agreements in 2022–23 with the United States, the UK, Australia, and France, and had earlier signed security agreements with Indonesia and Israel. However, it was the security proposal from China in September 2023 that caught the eyes of Australia and the United States. This was especially significant as it came close on the heels of the AU$200 million (about $130 million) Framework for Closer Security Relations (mainly on policing support) with Australia, the biggest ever security agreement the two close neighbors had ever undertaken.Port Moresby was definitely attempting to balance its influence with Beijing, Canberra, and Washington. On April 21, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on an official visit, concluded economic agreements with the PNG, leading to negotiations for a free trade agreement that would also include policing support. This begs the question of how many “policing support” agreements PNG can enter without completely disorienting its police force. Not that the PNG does not need internal security support. Internal violence continues there unabated, and the question of the impending separation—independence—of the PNG’s Bougainville region is something high on the agenda for both China and the West.Further east, however, Fiji—a key leader in the PIF—recently expelled Chinese police officials who had been allowed to operate there by the previous Fijian government. And in March this year, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to revive and strengthen the Compacts of Free Association, which the United States has with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. In New Zealand, the October 2023 elections changed the government from pro-Beijing to more pro-Western. The growth of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) influence in the Pacific is slowing but still holding much of its ground.Much of this is due to the fact that while Canberra recognizes the strategic importance of the South Pacific, it has not altered its paternalistic, bureaucratic approach to the region’s sovereign states. Historically, it has wasted aid money on projects not wanted by the regional states rather than consulting with the regional leaders.Many Pacific Islands Forum leaders are intelligent, experienced officials who look at the bureaucrats in Canberra and New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, as wise parents look upon recalcitrant children who seem never to learn.Solomon Islands Election Backgrou

Is Beijing’s Relative Position Declining in the Pacific?

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Commentary

The relative strategic positions of the two dominant dynamic elements of the Pacific competition—China and the United States—appear to be moving incrementally in the U.S. favor as each undergoes massive (and more important) internal “deconstruction.”

The United States faces a pivotal election in November 2024; China faces economic and possibly political collapse at home.

Their internal challenges seem more likely to determine the overall outcome of China–U.S. competition. Still, the broader Pacific context is transforming at a relatively glacial pace, now nudging incrementally in favor of the U.S./Western position. The April 17 election in the Solomon Islands and the subsequent May 2 election by Parliament there of the new prime minister were just one recent “incremental” step in that process.

The anticipated parliamentary election of former Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele to replace outgoing Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Mr. Manele’s party colleague, reflected the April 17 election outcome, which cost Mr. Sogavare heavily in terms of seats. Mr. Manele, with Mr. Sogavare’s parting help, created a new coalition to give it sufficient votes to form a government, but it was clear that the days of Mr. Sogavare’s ability to act decisively had passed.

Incoming Prime Minister Manele, who was a part of Mr. Sogavare’s ability to open the Solomons to China, said that the Beijing component of the national foreign policy would continue. However, it is clear that, in the delicate climate of coalitions of expediency (by the government and the opposition), Beijing’s influence has declined a notch. Indeed, it showed that Beijing’s active political maneuvering in the Solomons, as with much of the South Pacific, has been losing momentum. And that the United States and Australia, in particular, have been gradually recovering their postures in the region and among the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) countries.

Significantly, it was the New Zealand Defence Force that provided the logistics to conduct the Solomon Islands elections, not China (nor, indeed, Australia or the United States).

In essence, the Solomons situation—which had been a tinderbox of concern to the PIF leaders generally—has calmed down, and internal stressors seem likely to ease. This will be significant in the runup to the 53rd PIF Summit, which will be held on Aug. 26–30 in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Now, attention will likely be focused on security challenges within the PIF member state Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The PNG government signed a number of security agreements in 2022–23 with the United States, the UK, Australia, and France, and had earlier signed security agreements with Indonesia and Israel. However, it was the security proposal from China in September 2023 that caught the eyes of Australia and the United States. This was especially significant as it came close on the heels of the AU$200 million (about $130 million) Framework for Closer Security Relations (mainly on policing support) with Australia, the biggest ever security agreement the two close neighbors had ever undertaken.

Port Moresby was definitely attempting to balance its influence with Beijing, Canberra, and Washington. On April 21, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on an official visit, concluded economic agreements with the PNG, leading to negotiations for a free trade agreement that would also include policing support. This begs the question of how many “policing support” agreements PNG can enter without completely disorienting its police force. Not that the PNG does not need internal security support. Internal violence continues there unabated, and the question of the impending separation—independence—of the PNG’s Bougainville region is something high on the agenda for both China and the West.

Further east, however, Fiji—a key leader in the PIF—recently expelled Chinese police officials who had been allowed to operate there by the previous Fijian government. And in March this year, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to revive and strengthen the Compacts of Free Association, which the United States has with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. In New Zealand, the October 2023 elections changed the government from pro-Beijing to more pro-Western. The growth of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) influence in the Pacific is slowing but still holding much of its ground.

Much of this is due to the fact that while Canberra recognizes the strategic importance of the South Pacific, it has not altered its paternalistic, bureaucratic approach to the region’s sovereign states. Historically, it has wasted aid money on projects not wanted by the regional states rather than consulting with the regional leaders.

Many Pacific Islands Forum leaders are intelligent, experienced officials who look at the bureaucrats in Canberra and New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, as wise parents look upon recalcitrant children who seem never to learn.

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Solomon Islands Election Background

General elections were held on April 17 in the Solomon Islands, a year later than constitutionally mandated, to elect the 12th Parliament. The result was that no party received a majority (in the 50-seat legislature). However, the outgoing party of Mr. Sogavare (OUR: Ownership, Unity, and Responsibility Party) won the most seats, 15, compared with the opposition Democratic Party of Matthew Wale, which won 11 seats, an increase of three seats. There were 10 fewer independents in Parliament than in the 2019 session, with only 11 independents in the 2024 vote. As a result, Mr. Sogavare, a four-time prime minister, said he would not contest the premiership when Parliament voted for the head of government on May 2.

Mr. Manele was nominated to contest the premiership as OUR put together a coalition that would give it a parliamentary majority. He renewed Mr. Sogavare’s coalition with two micro parties and courted the support of independents to ensure that his new Coalition for National Unity and Transformation (CNUT) won the parliamentary election to form government, defeating Mr. Wale in a 31 to 18 vote (there was one absentee).

Governor-General Sir David Vunagi, on behalf of King Charles III, swore in Mr. Manele as prime minister of the Government of National Unity and Transformation (GNUT) on May 2. Mr. Manele became the first member of Parliament from Isabel Province to become prime minister.

Mr. Manele’s government was expected to maintain Solomon’s relationship and strategic treaty with China but has also pledged to maintain the nation’s relationship with Australia and other “traditional allies,” including New Zealand and the United States.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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