Fiji will join the US-led Indo-Pacific economic framework just days before China’s foreign minister lands in the country, handing the Biden administration a victory in its competition with Beijing for influence in the Pacific.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hailed Fiji’s decision to become the first Pacific island nation and the 14th member of IPEF, a trade initiative aimed at deepening economic ties, which President Joe Biden launched Monday in Japan.
“IPEF now reflects the full regional diversity of the Indo-Pacific, with members from Northeast and Southeast Asia, South Asia, Oceania and the Pacific Islands “Sullivan said.
The move relieved the United States in its rapidly escalating battle with Beijing over influence over Pacific island nations.
The United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan were alarmed when China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands this year. Some security experts believe the deal could pave the way for Beijing to build a naval base that would allow it to project its power further into the Pacific.
The Financial Times reported last week that China was negotiating a security pact with Kiribati, another Pacific island nation 3,000 km from Hawaii. Reuters reported that Beijing has offered an even broader security and economic deal called the “China-Pacific Island Countries Joint Development Vision” to 10 Pacific island nations.
Chinese Foreign Secretary Wang Yi was due to discuss the proposal with Pacific island nations in Fiji on Monday. But Suva’s decision to join IPEF has undermined Beijing’s drive to reach a comprehensive political, economic and security deal.
Fiji has played a pivotal role in China’s push for influence in the Pacific. After Frank Bainimarama, now prime minister, became president in a military coup in 2006, Western governments suspended contact with the country. China stepped in to forge ties, offering support to Bainimarama’s government and increasing aid from $1 million to $161 million over two years.
Fiji has since helped China promote partnerships with other countries in the region outside of the Pacific Islands Forum, a grouping that includes US allies Australia and New Zealand.
But analysts said Suva has been far more sophisticated in handling its relationship with China than other smaller nations in the region.
“They learned how the Chinese government works, which agencies do what, and thus gained the ability to look out for their own interests,” said Tarcisius Kabutulaka, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii. “For example, they say no to Chinese loans when they think it’s not good for them.”
U.S. efforts to get Fiji to join IPEF are part of a broader strategy to steer certain countries away from China’s sphere of influence. The IPEF is designed to fill some of the void created when then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2017.
Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister, has also made a clear commitment to the region with the aim of regaining support ahead of Wang’s visit.
Speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva this week, she said Canberra would increase aid to the Pacific by around 500 million Australian dollars (356 million US dollars) over the next four years and that it “will not be attached to conditions, nor will it impose unsustainable financial burdens”.
Sullivan said Fiji would add “vital value” to IPEF, especially in efforts to combat climate change. Fiji and other Pacific nations face serious threats from rising temperatures and rising sea levels.