Blinken to Meet with Quad, Pacific Islands amid Heightened US-China Rivalry

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Blinken to Meet with Quad, Pacific Islands amid Heightened US-China Rivalry U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he disembarks from his plane upon arriving to attend the meeting of the Quad foreign ministers in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 9, 2022.

American Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Melbourne, Australia, the first stop of a seven-day visit to the Indo-Pacific that, analysts say, is aimed at countering China’s rising influence in the region.

His trip, which goes through Feb. 13, includes stops in Fiji and Hawaii – the first visit by the top U.S. diplomat to Fiji in nearly four decades. It’s an effort to elevate American engagement with far-flung islands in the southern Pacific – described by one analyst as a “ground zero” for strategic competition between the United States and China.

But first, Blinken will meet on Friday with foreign ministers from the Quad, a quadrilateral strategic partnership that includes the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

“There will be important discussions for furthering the Quad as a key organization for managing Indo-Pacific security issues, especially in the context of increasing challenges from a rising China,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank based in Canberra.

While it is not a defense alliance like NATO but a diplomatic and political partnership, the Quad “focuses on broad issues of international security, including managing the COVID pandemic, responding to the risks and opportunities of critical and emerging technologies, ensuring maritime security and stability, and other areas,” Davis said.

In September, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. announced a new trilateral security pact for the Indo-Pacific region called AUKUS. China reacted strongly to the pact, calling it a product of “cold-war mentality.”

“I think the Quad, whilst not formally connected to AUKUS, sits nicely alongside AUKUS as strengthening multilateral security arrangements to promote and build a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Davis said.

Last week, China and Russia unveiled a new sweeping agreement that covers multiple areas of cooperation including security, space, climate change, the Internet, and artificial intelligence.

This new pact, generally considered to challenge America and the West, will no doubt be discussed at the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting.

The meeting would also discuss the Pacific islands, how to ramp up vaccine distribution, tackle climate change and push back against aggression and coercion in the region.

On Saturday, Blinken will visit Fiji, the first visit there by a U.S. secretary of state since 1985.

“Blinken’s visit sends a strong message to Fiji, and more broadly to the Pacific island states of U.S. interests and attention,” Davis said.

In this file photo by Reuters, a man walks past a Chinese hospital ship moored in the harbor of Suva, the Fijian capital, Aug. 24, 2014. The U.S. is looking to step up its engagement with Pacific islands amid strategic competition with China. [Reuters]

‘Reconnect with the Pacific’

The visit offers a chance for the U.S. to reconnect with countries in the region, said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think-tank.

“Fiji was chosen because it’s a hub of the region, many multilateral and regional organizations are based there. As many other nations are either still not accepting foreign visitors or are fighting COVID outbreaks, it’s a natural pick for a country in the Pacific to visit,” Pryke said.

Eighteen Pacific island leaders have been invited to a video meeting with Blinken on Saturday “to discuss the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, disaster assistance, and ways to further our shared commitment to democracy, regional solidarity, and prosperity in the Pacific,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.

In recent years, China has been actively developing closer ties with the Pacific islands, wooing them with infrastructure loans and economic assistance, as well as military exchanges.

Six Pacific governments – the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu – are indebted to China, according to a report by the Lowy Institute. All of them signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure masterplan.

“The Pacific Islands have of late become a ‘ground zero’ for the strategic competition between China on one side and the U.S., Australia, and to a lesser extent, Japan, on the other,” said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a U.S. Department of Defense institute based in Honolulu.

“They matter to the major powers because of their strategic location, their large exclusive economic zones (EEZs), their relatively high number of votes in the United Nations, and their extreme susceptibility to major power influence,” Vuving said.

An EEZ is an area of the ocean, generally extending 200 nautical miles within which a coastal nation has jurisdiction over resources.

Vuving described the Pacific islands as “a key diplomatic battlefield between China and Taiwan for decades.”

Four Pacific nations including Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Palau have official ties with Taiwan while Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.

Blinken will face the task of reassuring the Pacific island states of the commitment by the U.S. and its allies in helping them fight the COVID pandemic, providing more vaccines as well as tackling climate change and security challenges.

Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, said last month that the United States had “enormous moral, strategic, historical interests” in the Pacific but had not done enough to assist the region.

Addressing Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Campbell said: “And we have a very short amount of time, working with partners like Australia, like New Zealand, like Japan, like France, who have an interest in the Pacific, to step up our game across the board.”


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