A week-long trip to Beijing by the Pacific’s most flamboyant statesman Manasseh Sogavare was always going to cause concern in Australia.
The substance of the visit was as expected. The relationship between China and the Solomon Islands was upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” or on a par with Papua New Guinea, the first Pacific nation to sign up for the Belt and Road Initiative.
Nine agreements were also signed covering everything from civil aviation and infrastructure to fisheries and tourism.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who inked the deal with Prime Minister Sogavare, made a point of not mentioning the controversial policing cooperation agreement. Instead, the draft was leaked more than a year ago to New Zealand academic Anna Powles.
Despite repeated calls from Australia and New Zealand to release the text of the policing agreement, there is no indication the Chinese or the Solomon Islands leadership will do so.
There were also moments of theater in Sogavare’s trip. The prime minister declared, “I’m back home” when he arrived in Beijing in a clip on China Global Television Network or CGTN.
He then said in a longer interview on the same network that his nation had been “on the wrong side of history” for the 36 years it recognized Taiwan instead of the People’s Republic of China, and lauded President Xi Jinping as a “great man.”
Sogavare saved his biggest serve for his return to the Solomon Islands, though. He accused Australia and New Zealand of withdrawing crucial budget support and hinted he would look to China to establish armed forces, should Canberra be unwilling to help.
Some key questions have been overlooked this week in the pantomime about what Australia should or shouldn’t do to shore up its relationship with an important Pacific partner. We could start by avoiding an arms race in the Solomon Islands with China.
After saying that, what’s been somewhat lost in the discussion is how Beijing has made inroads so quickly in a region that it is still officially classified as “peripheral.”
China has certainly had to work harder to gain a foothold there. Relative to other regions, it has a lack of historical state ties with the Pacific. In Africa and Southeast Asia, Beijing can draw on memories of shared anti-colonial struggles and aid projects like the Tanzam railway.
In the Pacific, the Chinese Communist Party is a latecomer.
Also holding it back is the remoteness and small population of the region. This has not made the Pacific a good fit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has flourished in countries with rapid transport and communication links and substantial Chinese diasporas.
Most of Beijing’s own Pacific experts were baffled when the region was belatedly included in the project. Yet despite these obstacles, it’s clear the Chinese state’s approach has shifted in its diplomacy and the role state-linked companies are expected to play.
China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has received plenty of attention, but the picture in the Pacific is less straightforward.
Special Envoy to the Pacific, Qian Bo, undoubtedly styles himself as a “Wolf Warrior.” During his tenure as Fijian ambassador, a Taiwanese representative was assaulted by Chinese diplomats for the crime of displaying a Taiwanese flag cake.
Yet, other appointments suggest China is using higher-caliber diplomats in the region.
These include Li Ming, the current ambassador to the Solomon Islands, and Xue Bing, the former ambassador to Papua New Guinea who now holds the challenging post of special envoy to the Horn of Africa.
With experience in the region and good language skills, these diplomats have been more able to engage with Pacific communities than their predecessors, who largely focused on sending good news back to Beijing. More serious representatives suggest more serious intent.
State-linked companies remain the driving force behind China’s engagement with the Pacific.
Unlike the embassies, they are well-resourced and have skin in the game. Many company men – in construction, where Chinese companies dominate – have been in the region for decades, developing a deep understanding of how to win projects and influence political elites.
Failed projects generate plenty of headlines, but many companies – such as COVEC PNG and China Railway First Group – are effective operators.
They are building infrastructure cheaply in the Pacific and winning the favor of multilateral donors, particularly the Asian Development Bank.
For larger state-linked companies, like China Harbor Engineering Company and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation or CCECC, the geopolitical game has shifted.
In the past, they could rely on their standing within the Chinese political system to resist pressure to act on behalf of the state. Now, they are expected to carry geopolitical water for Beijing. Often this can benefit the companies.
For instance, when CCECC lobbied the Solomon Islands leadership to switch their allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, it helped the company when it came to bidding for projects for the Pacific Games in Honiara.
The leaders of these companies realize it can harm their image when they are seen as Beijing’s pawns. Yet, the companies, diplomats, and Pacific leaders who choose Beijing’s embrace know times have changed.
China is now a serious player in the region with a development philosophy to sell. It’s no longer enough to read Beijing’s talking points. You have to look like you mean it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.