At the start of October, the U.S. agreed on an 11-point partnership declaration with 14 Pacific island nations, and The Washington Post was first to report the Biden administration would back it up with $860 million in expanded aid programs. This has been lauded as a diplomatic success for the U.S. for two reasons. First, because it initially looked as though the Solomon Islands would not sign up, but then it did. And second, because the region shelved an overarching pact with China at the end of May, leaving Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to caution some in the region against being “too anxious” about his country’s aims, ”because the common development and prosperity of China and all the other developing countries would only mean great harmony, greater justice and greater progress of the whole world.” Allegedly.
The apparent shift in the U.S.’ favor leads to an obvious question for Wang Yi: What if he hadn’t tried to force that deal over the line via a tour of the region so shrouded in secrecy that it looked almost purpose-built for inducing anxiety?
As a brief tactical review: Before he even set off, an atmosphere of paranoia had spread for months over rumors of a secret security pact between China and the Solomon Islands. Details of the pact leaked online in March, but the deal was signed in April, before U.S. and Australian delegations were even able to reach the Solomon Islands to offer a response. Experienced Solomon Islands journalist Dorothy Wickham outlined levels of secrecy within the country that she had not seen in 35 years of reporting: “The government has refused to release the text of the deal,” she said. “They have also refused to give interviews, while texts to longstanding contacts in the government go unanswered and calls unreturned.” According to Wickham, in one incident a reporter and cameraman trying to film the country’s prime minister were chased from the parliament building by police.
When Wang Yi actually reached the Pacific, the situation solidified into a more widespread media blackout. Through trips to the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji, no Pacific journalists were allowed to ask a question of Wang Yi, according to Reporters Without Borders. In Fiji, a local journalist cited by The Guardian said media who initially had been given permission to cover the visit had passes withdrawn and described how she was ordered to leave before filming the beginning of the meeting between Wang and Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. A joint press conference between the two was then allegedly managed by Chinese officials, with one of those officials allegedly shouting at Fijian journalists who attempted to ask questions. One journalist was manhandled by a Chinese handler who tried to make him leave the room.
This, for future reference, is not how one reduces anxiety.
Of course, negotiations with the U.S. were also held behind closed doors — hence coverage of leaked notes via anonymous sources — and supposed anxiety did not mean Wang Yi’s tour was entirely unsuccessful. It should be said that China did secure a large number of bilateral agreements with individual countries on the tour; and the Solomon Islands says it has only signed the partnership declaration with the U.S. after indirect references to China were removed.
But for now, Wang Yi could probably do with learning that if you don’t want people to get anxious about your plans when you walk in a room, you probably shouldn’t turn the lights off the second you get there. China has dismissed the whole issue of transparency around the tour as “U.S. lies,” but it still appears there are diplomatic consequences if state actors you meet with don’t trust your motives.
Image: Solomon Islands Government