SUVA, Fiji -- Beijing's diplomatic efforts for a wide-ranging regional security pact in the South Pacific failed to materialise Monday (May 30) amid worries that China's proposal was "disingenuous".
If China's actions in and around its territorial waters are any indicator, the South Pacific states were prudent to be cautious, stakeholders say.
The leaders of 10 Pacific island nations rebuffed China's push to bring them into Beijing's orbit during talks in the Fijian capital Suva with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
China is offering to radically ramp up its activities in the South Pacific, directly challenging the influence of the United States and its allies in the strategically vital region.
The proposed pact would see Beijing train Pacific island police, become involved in cybersecurity, expand political ties, conduct sensitive marine mapping, and gain greater access to natural resources on land and in the water.
As an enticement, Beijing is offering millions of dollars in financial assistance, the prospect of a potentially lucrative China-Pacific islands free trade agreement and access to China's vast market of 1.4 billion people.
The same day as Wang's meeting with regional leaders in Fiji, China made the second largest incursion into Taiwan's air defence identification zone (ADIZ) this year with Taipei reporting 30 jets entering the area, including more than 20 fighters.
Democratic Taiwan lives under the constant threat of invasion by China, which views the island as its territory and has vowed to one day seize it, by force if necessary.
Monday's incursion was the largest since January 23, when 39 planes entered the ADIZ.
Last year, Taiwan recorded 969 incursions by Chinese warplanes into its ADIZ, according to an AFP database -- more than double the roughly 380 carried out in 2020.
So far in 2022 Taiwan has reported 465 incursions, a near 50% increase on the same period last year.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Manila revealed that it had summoned a senior Beijing diplomat to protest the alleged harassment of a marine research vessel by a Chinese coast guard ship in Philippine territorial waters.
The revelation came the same day Manila said it had issued a separate diplomatic protest over what it characterised as Beijing's "unilateral imposition of a three-and-half-month fishing moratorium" near the disputed Spratly Islands.
Manila and Beijing have long been locked in a dispute over areas of the South China Sea, to almost all of which China insists it has exclusive rights, rejecting a 2016 ruling by The Hague that its historical claims were without basis.
'A good brother'?
Before Monday's meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message that China would be "a good brother" to the region and that they shared a "common destiny", according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
But some pushback to Beijing's proposal has come from Pacific states and other concerned allies.
Western powers have bristled against the deals, with the US State Department warning the Pacific to be wary of "shadowy, vague deals with little transparency" with China.
Australia joined the United States in urging South Pacific nations to spurn China's attempts to expand its security reach deep into the region, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong warning of the "consequences" of such deals.
In a recent letter to fellow leaders, President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo warned the offer was "disingenuous" and would "ensure Chinese influence in government" and "economic control" of key industries.
A softer-spoken public rebuke came after the talks, when leaders said they could not agree to Beijing's proposed "Common Development Vision" due to a lack of regional consensus.
Chinese officials -- working frantically to secure support during Wang's 10-day diplomatic blitz of the region -- admitted their entreaties had fallen short.
"There has been general support from the 10 countries," Chinese Ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo told reporters in Suva. "But of course, there are some concerns on some specific issues and we have agreed that these two documents will be discussed afterwards until we have reached an agreement."
The full proposal has not been made public, but was leaked to media including AFP ahead of Monday's meeting.
China has said it will release a "position paper" highlighting the proposals to the public in the coming weeks.
Speaking from Suva, Wang made the face-saving announcement that the 10 countries had agreed to memoranda of understanding on China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The two sides will "continue to have ongoing and in-depth discussions and consultations to shape more consensus on co-operation", Wang said, urging those worried by Beijing's intentions not to be "too anxious and don't be too nervous".
Xi launched the trillion-dollar BRI in 2013 to expand China's economic and political influence, with many of the infrastructure plans seen as helping deliver its goods globally.
A closer look at the BRI reveals Beijing's aim of monopolising natural resources and expanding military ambitions from China to the Mediterranean, including locations in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
Among other goals, the BRI is meant to facilitate the extraction and shipping of poorer countries' natural resources for Chinese benefit.
China denies any ulterior motives to the vast investment project, but critics argue it uses the financial leverage arising from the scheme to boost its clout, in what they dub "debt-trap diplomacy" -- imposing harsh terms on loan recipients and writing contracts that allow it to seize strategic assets when debtor countries run into financial problems.
Observers have raised red flags over reliance on Chinese funding, and there is growing discontent with the terms of Chinese investment.
China's years-long lending spree in poorer countries poses a "serious danger" that could plunge the world into the next financial crisis, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned last Friday.
"There is a really serious danger that the next major debt crisis in the global south will stem from loans that China has granted worldwide and doesn't have a full overview of because there are so many players involved," he said.
"That would then plunge both China and the global south into a major economic and financial crisis and, incidentally, would not leave the rest of the world unaffected," Scholz said. "So this is a serious concern."