US worried about losing out in South Pacific to Chinese influence

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ... American concerns on Pacific as Beijing appears now to have strengthened its hand in Honiara. Image: TPN

COMMENTARY: By Michael Field in Auckland

China’s activities in the South Pacific are causing growing alarm in Washington, forcing US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make an urgent visit to Fiji.

But, sources say, he cannot do it due to the continued absence of Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, and like many people, Blinken is awaiting word on when he will return.

Last month Bainimarama flew to Melbourne for unannounced open heart surgery and has given no word on when he will return.

Washington has regional concerns but Blinken appears to believe he can speak to the whole South Pacific in a single meeting with Bainimarama.

Washington regards its concerns as too important to be dealt with via acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

US aid and involvement in the Pacific has been minimal and the last high level visit of any kind was the 2012 trip to Rarotonga of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A decade between visits shows a high level indifference.

But concern has mounted after recent riots in the Solomon Islands in the wake of its switch in diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China.

Beijing appears now to have strengthened its hand in Honiara.

Slow to give significant aid
While China has been slow to get significant aid to eruption damaged Tonga, they will still beat the United States to it. Washington got a frigate to Nuku’alofa with boxes of water; China’s PLAN Wuzhishan and Chaganhu are grunty vessels, carrying significant aid.

Nuku’alofa is already home to a large and modern Chinese Embassy.

The business of asserting Western power has not been helped by Australia’s naval failure of its flagship HMAS Adelaide.

However, while Blinken’s flying trip into Suva will wave flags and provide the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) with yet another dress up parade, how it will go down with other countries in the region is far from clear. They are not overly fond of Bainimarama’s preaching.

But all depends on one thing: Bainimarama showing up at all.

Michael Field is an independent New Zealand journalist and co-editor of The Pacific Newsroom. Republished with permission.

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