US, Pacific allies conclude Exercise Cartwheel joint drills in Fiji

RFA staff
2022.09.23
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US, Pacific allies conclude Exercise Cartwheel joint drills in Fiji U.S. Army Soldiers train alongside Republic of Fiji Military, Australian, New Zealand and British forces during Exercise Cartwheel 2022 in Fiji, Sept. 17, 2022.
U.S. Army Pacific

Updated at 9:04 p.m. ET on 2022-09-23

A multinational military training exercise involving American, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Fijian troops ended Friday in Fiji, one of the many small island countries in the Pacific, where rival superpowers China and the United States are vying for influence.  

The 11-day Exercise Cartwheel, named after Operation Cartwheel – a major military operation for the Allies in the Pacific during World War II – aimed to build up “expeditionary readiness and interoperability,” the U.S. Embassy in Suva said in a press release.

Around 270 troops from five nations took part in drills conducted in both jungle and urban environments. 

The New Zealand Defense Force’s land component commander, Brig. Hugh McAslan, told NZ media that Exercise Cartwheel provided a platform for participating forces to work together and build readiness for military action and other crises.

“We have an obligation to work alongside these folks … We are part of the Pacific,” McAslan said.

The exercise, meanwhile, drew criticism from Chinese state media, which called the exercise “another of the U.S.’s important battlegrounds in its game with China.”

By conducting joint drills in Fiji, the United States wanted to send “a signal to China and regional countries in the South Pacific,” the hawkish Global Times said.

The drills should be seen as “an effort to counter China’s influence in the region,” the newspaper said. 

Influence battle 

China’s has been expanding its influence in the South Pacific while competing with Taiwan for bilateral ties and alliances with island-states scattered in the vast maritime region.

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

“Our assistance to island countries is sincere and results-oriented with no political strings attached,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said last week.

One of them is the Solomon Islands, where China signed a secretive security deal with the local government in April, raising concerns among the U.S. and its Pacific allies that Beijing may be able to deploy security military forces there in the future.

Beijing has not hidden its ambition to set up military bases in the region. In 2018, media reports about China’s plan to build a base in Vanuatu prompted a stern warning from then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

However, China failed to achieve a sweeping trade and security agreement – the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision – during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Pacific tour in May.

For its part, the U.S. in recent months has ramped up its own efforts to engage with Pacific island nations, with top officials for the Indo-Pacific region actively traveling to the region and meeting with their Pacific counterparts.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with a number of senior Pacific officials in Hawaii, where she discussed deepening relationships with countries in the region.

In July, at the virtual Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting, chaired by the Fijian Prime Minister, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced a series of commitments to strengthen the U.S.-Pacific nations partnership, including the establishment of new U.S. embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, alongside the reopening of the embassy in the Solomon Islands.

The U.S. government also pledged to triple the funding for the Forum Fisheries Agency to U.S. $60 million per year for the next 10 years.

The State Department is close to renewing strategic partnership agreements, called “Compacts of Free Association,” or COFAs, with the three Pacific island nations of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, according to Special Presidential Envoy Joseph Yun. 

The COFAs, which were signed originally between the U.S. and the three Pacific island states during the 1980s and will soon expire, allow the U.S. to operate armed forces in the agreement areas as well as to deny foreign militaries access to those countries’ waters, airspace and land.

And next week, the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit will take place in Washington on Sept. 28-29, the White House announced earlier this month.

This report was produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.

CORRECTION: An earlier version used the wrong name to refer to the joint military exercise. 

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