China’s Pacific Play Challenges New Australian Government

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.

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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 China’s ties to the region.

In a draft communique and five-year action plan sent to ten Pacific island nations‑the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia—China has proposed new agreements on security and technology cooperation that has 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, Sen. 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’s 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, Jonathan Pryke, an expert on the Pacific Islands at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute told Foreign Policy.

“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 that of its island neighbors, many of whom 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. Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) 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.

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 that of its island neighbors, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to the catastrophic impacts of a warming planet.

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.”

 

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 Johnson’s resignation. Douglas Ross, the head of the Scottish Conservatives, said Johnson should resign once the war in Ukraine is over.

The scandal drags on as 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 spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said his country would continue to block Finland 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 Kurdish Workers’ Party, otherwise known as the PKK.

Ukraine peace efforts. Cyprus, Italy, and Hungary have urged EU countries to include language calling for a ceasefire 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 gives 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 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 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 the war in Ukraine, Western efforts 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.


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 ABC News.


That’s it for today

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