Leaders of over 20 Pacific Island nations will arrive in Washington on Monday for a two-day US-Pacific Island Forum Summit, the second such gathering in two years.
While the meeting officially focuses on climate change, economic growth, and sustainable development, China’s growing clout in the region also looms large. The United States has been accused of abandoning the South Pacific since the end of the Cold War, creating a vacuum that China has aptly filled. As of 2021, Chinese trade with the region stood at $5.3 billion, up from just $153 million in 1992. China has built infrastructure and lent money to a number of Pacific nations, including to the small archipelago of Tonga, now in debt $286 million to China for a series of rebuilding projects.
But nowhere has China’s influence campaign been more successful than in the Solomon Islands. In April 2022 its President, Manesseh Sogavare, signed the first South Pacific security pact with China, authorizing Chinese navy ships to make routine port visits to the Solomons. In July 2023 Sogavare paid a state visit to Beijing, inking a two-year plan for police cooperation. Back home, Sogavare stands accused of using Chinese funds to buy political support and silence dissent; he will be notably absent at this week’s gathering in Washington.
Why play tug-of-war over these small nations? Diplomatically, every South Pacific nation has an equal vote in forums like the United Nations. China has already convinced several to drop their recognition of Taiwan in favor of Beijing. Economically, they control access to fishing and seabed minerals over a vast territory. Militarily, they are strategically positioned and could be crucial launching pads in any future conflict over Taiwan. Micronesia, for example, lies within striking distance of the American military base in Guam.
But it’s not just the big powers who are jostling for power in the region: India, Indonesia and South Korea are also seeking influence to maintain access to global shipping channels.
Japan, along with many independent scientists and the International Atomic Energy Agency, have said the water is safe. Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida even publicly ate fish from the affected area. But China isn’t buying it. Beijing sharply protested the release, banned imports of Japanese fish, and urged others to follow its lead.
This conflict appears to go well beyond safety concerns. In fact, China has been accused of deliberately spreading misinformation about the health risks from this event, prompting vandalism and threats against Japanese people and companies in China.
But so far, China has been unable to persuade more of Japan’s neighbors to join in the outrage. At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July, China called on member states to denounce Japan’s water discharge plan, but the joint communique that followed the meeting ignored the issue entirely. At another ASEAN meeting earlier this month, China’s Premier Li Qiang sharply criticized both Japan’s water plan and Kishida, but the issue was then dropped.
It appears that wariness of China’s growing influence has been a more important factor in the Great East Asian Fish Fight than the region’s traditional mistrust of Japan.
Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week on World In :60.
What's the future for Canada-India relations amidst the accusation of Sikh leader murder?
Also Canadian citizen, by the way, this is the equivalent of Jamal Khashoggi if he had been assassinated in the United States as opposed to Turkey. It's a big deal. The Canadians have hard intel. They've shared it with all of their top allies. The Americans certainly see it's very credible. This is, frankly, since the Russians invaded Ukraine, US relations with all of their top security partners and allies have only gotten closer and stronger over the last 19 months. This is the single big exception to that. India and Canada, two increasingly strong security partners of the United States with a very major flap. Trudeau called them out directly. There's been, you know, already some diplomats that have been tossed out of each other's countries. Doesn't really matter from an economic perspective. There's very little trade relations between the two countries, but it matters a lot in terms of domestic politics.Indian population in Canada is pretty big, and they have fair political autonomy because they're dominant in a couple of key districts politically. The Indian government views this guy as terrorist that was killed. They also deny it, so they had nothing to do with it. And there's a lot of nationalism. So it's very hard for me to see this getting fixed any time soon. Watch how the Americans respond, because they are between a rock and a hard place in this flap.
Another missing Chinese minister. That's the defense minister. Is this a coincidence or something bigger happening?
Well, we know when we don't hear from ministers for a couple of weeks, we're not going to hear from them going forward. They have been purged. And in this case, it does look like a significant corruption issue, something that the Chinese and the Ukrainians have in common right now, except Ukrainians you still hear from. The Chinese, house arrest or a lot worse. I guess the one positive thing you can say is that with corruption still being a big problem and the Chinese clearing house domestically inside the military, they're not going to be looking to invade Taiwan any time soon. Of course, I didn't think that was going to happen anyway. But there is also the possibility that we could see a breakthrough on US-China defense relations, because this defense minister, one of the reasons the Americans didn't and couldn't see him is because he was sanctioned by the US. That will not likely be true of his successor.
Is Azerbaijan and Armenia on the precipice of full-scale war?
Hard to know whether the Armenians in Armenia will be getting involved, but the autonomous Republic of Karabakh, mountainous Karabakh, 120,000 Armenians inside Azerbaijan. They're in very serious trouble. For years, the Armenians had the upper hand. The Russians were their primary security and defense partner. They had control of their region, also took over Azeri territories, buffer territories, kicked the Azeris out of it. They didn't want to negotiate. Why? They didn't have to. Well, now they do. Now the Russians are in trouble. They're distracted. No one else is going to support them. They're in big trouble. So as a consequence, the Azeris first cut off all the humanitarian aid, cut off the ability to get any food in, any medicine in. And now they've actually invaded. They are in very seriously dire straits. It's a tragedy playing out. And I am hard-pressed to imagine anyone intervening on their behalf. Hate to see it.
Talk to you all real soon.
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- China's missing foreign minister is out (of a job) ›
- The Graphic Truth: How do Azerbaijan and Armenia stack up? ›
- Armenia, Azerbaijan & the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis that needs attention ›
Hard Numbers: Peru declares crime emergency, EU cuts Somalia aid, Chinese weddings dwindle, McCarthy tests his majority, oil prices surge
160,200: Peruvian President Dina Boluarte declared a state of emergency in two districts of the capital, Lima, and one in the northern city of Talara amid a devastating wave of violent crime. Lima police collected 160,200 crime reports last year, up 33% from 2021, part of a larger spike in violence in South America.
7 million: The European Union has suspended funding for the World Food Program’s operations in Somalia, which last year amounted to over $7 million, after a United Nations investigation discovered widespread theft by local power brokers, armed groups, and even aid workers themselves. The graft has macabre costs: Somalia barely avoided a famine last year amid a drought that killed 43,000 people — half of them children under 5.
6.8 million: Love is decidedly not in the air in China, as the country registered just 6.8 million weddings in 2022, a drop of some 800,000 compared to 2021 and the lowest figure on record. Meanwhile, even those who are tying the knot are more hesitant to have children, a factor contributing to China’s first population decline in 60 years, and a major long term headache for policy planners in Beijing.
4: US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is gambling that he can push through a temporary spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, despite fierce blowback from within his own GOP caucus. His margin is slim: he can afford to lose just only 4 GOP votes if he wants the measure to pass.
95: The price of oil hit $95 dollars per barrel, climbing some 26% for the quarter as Saudi Arabia and Russia have cut production to boost prices. Higher oil prices are likely to prop up inflation, complicating matters not only for households, but also for central bankers who had been hoping to ease off of interest rate hikes sooner than later.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held “candid, substantive, and constructive” talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Malta over the weekend, in an important step toward stabilizing frayed relations.
The two diplomats agreed to hold more meetings on “political and security developments in the Asia Pacific” and to resume military-to-military contacts.
That’s good news in this environment. Sullivan is just the latest in a train of high-ranking Biden officials to meet with their Chinese counterparts over the last few months. After relations hit a nadir with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced they would work to patch things up.
But it hasn’t been easy going. There was the spy balloon incident in February, the U.S. export controls on semiconductors, that time when Biden called Xi a dictator, the Shangri-la Dialogue meeting that was canceled – the list goes on. (And don’t forget the magic mushrooms story).The upshot is that a much anticipated Xi-Biden summit is still in the cards. Still, China’s Ministry of State Security said the prospective meeting — likely at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco in November — depends on US “sincerity.” It points to a fundamental problem: For all this year’s trust building work, Beijing has limited confidence in Washington's candor on crucial issues like Taiwan, trade, and technology.
Hard Numbers: Ukraine’s housecleaning continues, China outdoes itself over Taiwan, California sues Big Oil, US loses its wings, Nobody gets to see Cristiano Ronaldo play in Iran
6: The big fall cleaning at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense continues, as President Zelensky fired six deputy ministers over the weekend. No reason was given, but the move comes just weeks after his office sacked the Defense Minister on allegations of corruption.
103: China set a new record for aerial aggression against Taiwan, sending a total of 103 warplanes towards the island in a mere 24 hours from Sunday to Monday. The move is part of Beijing’s carrot-and-stick approach to influencing Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election. Read more about that here.
135: The state of California, AKA the world’s fifth largest economy, has filed a 135-page lawsuit against the leading American oil companies and lobbying groups, arguing that the industry systematically misled the public about the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change.
80 million: Uh, you lost a what now? The US government is asking for help to locate an $80 million fighter jet that went missing after its pilot ejected somewhere over South Carolina on Sunday. On the plus side, if the US can’t find the state of the art f-35 warplane, chances are the Chinese or Russians can’t either, right? Right?
7: For the first time in 7 years, a Saudi football club will visit Iran, as Al-Nassr, home of living football legend Cristiano Ronaldo, arrives in Tehran. The trip comes amid a thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but fans will have to catch a glimpse of “CR7” anywhere but the pitch, because Al-Nassr’s match against Tehran’s Persepolis isn’t open to fans. The Asian Football Federation reportedly hit Persepolis with a one-game crowd ban after the team goaded an opponent in Goa with a post about Iran’s 18th century invasion of India.
Why do Chinese officials keep vanishing? On Saturday, several executives of the beleaguered property developer Evergrande Group were arrested in the southern city of Shenzhen, where the conglomerate is headquartered. It is unclear how many persons were detained, or their names or titles, though a statement by local police referenced one individual named “Du.” There is speculation that this individual is Du Liang, who in 2021 was listed as head of Evergrande’s wealth management unit.
Evergrande made headlines in Aug. 2023 when it filed for US bankruptcy protection, and is currently undergoing a restructuring plan for its $340 billion debt. On Friday, China’s national financial regulator announced it had approved the takeover of Evergrande’s life insurance business by a new state-owned entity.
These arrests come on the heels of the disappearance two weeks ago of China’s defense minister, Li Shangfu. According to US officials, Li is under investigation for corruption along with eight senior officials who worked in a military procurement unit that he led from 2017 to 2022. Beijing, however, is staying mum: On Friday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she was “not aware” of the situation.These incidents, as well as the recent removal of Qin Gang as Chinese foreign minister and a shake-up at the top of the country’s nuclear forces, have led to speculation that President Xi Jinping is conducting a purge within China’s defense apparatus. If so, it remains to be seen whether that reflects squabbling within the Chinese elite, a more general consolidation of Xi’s power, or a house-cleaning ahead of some big move by the Chinese president. But a wave of disappearing acts at the top of the world’s second largest economy are not a good sign.