China appoints special envoy to Pacific island countries

Stephen Wright
China appoints special envoy to Pacific island countries Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (right) and other officials escort Wang Yi (center), then China’s foreign minister, upon his arrival at Henderson International Airport in Honiara, May 25, 2022.

China has named a special envoy to Pacific island countries, adding to its diplomatic arsenal in a region where Beijing increasingly vies with the United States for influence.

China’s government had announced plans for the envoy role in mid-2022, when then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pacific island states after a period of limited face-to-face contact because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing revealed the appointment of Qian Bo until recently China’s ambassador to Fiji in response to a question from Chinese state media during a regular press conference at the foreign ministry last week.

As special government envoy, Qian will “make strong efforts to advance further development of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Pacific Island countries,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on Feb. 15. 

During the past two decades, China has become a source of infrastructure, loans and aid for economically-lagging island nations in the Pacific as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain allies in international organizations such as the United Nations.

Some analysts say Beijing also hopes to establish a military presence in the Pacific in a challenge to American dominance. Last year, the Asian superpower signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the United States and Australia, which have stepped up their efforts to counter China’s increased sway. 

Four of the 14 countries that recognize Taiwan are in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.

The appointment of a special envoy shows that greater influence in the Pacific remains a goal for China, according to Mihai Sora, a Pacific analyst at Australia’s Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat in the region. 

Beijing is aiming to better coordinate its diplomatic and strategic moves in the Pacific at a time when Pacific island countries have less appetite for large infrastructure loans and have also increased their security cooperation with Australia and the United States, Sora told BenarNews.

China has special diplomatic envoys for several countries, regions and global issues including Myanmar, the Middle East, Afghanistan and climate change and in the past decade has increasingly sought to mediate in conflicts. It already had an envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, an organization made up of 16 Pacific island nations as well as Australia and New Zealand.

“We’ll all watch with interest. It seems like overkill. But perhaps it is an indication of their intentions to aggressively increase their influence in the region,” said Matthew Wale, leader of the Solomon Islands opposition.

The Mercator Institute for China Studies has said that China’s higher diplomatic profile and attempts at conflict resolution are linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, a sprawling Chinese plan, begun in 2013, to build a global network of Chinese financed and constructed railways, energy pipelines, highways and other infrastructure. 

Through more active diplomacy, China wants to both protect its economic interests and build a reputation as a responsible global power, Mercator said. 

The single armed conflict in the Pacific islands region is between Indonesia and Papuan independence fighters, who want the Indonesian-governed western half of the island of New Guinea to be an independent state, and who have grassroots support in some island nations such as Vanuatu. 

China would not want to get involved as it would draw further attention to its own colonial policies in Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Wale said. China also has ambitions for Indonesia to be a key part of its infrastructure plans.

“The special envoy is more to see how best to build and leverage China’s relationships at the regional level,” Wale told BenarNews.

Qian, the Pacific envoy, was China’s ambassador to Fiji from 2018. He was formally replaced in February by Zhou Jian, previously ambassador to Qatar and a deputy-director in the Chinese foreign ministry’s Policy Planning Department.

Qian’s role likely has greater clout within the Chinese government than the envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum and he will be able to deal with more complex and substantial issues, according to Wang Yiwei, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

“It reflects the increased importance that the Chinese government attaches to the affairs of this region,” he said, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. 


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