Pacific islands should shun tug of war

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi will reportedly visit the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and the Cook Islands in late March. That the senior Japanese official visited Fiji and Palau around 10 months ago reveals the increasing importance Japan is attaching to the Pacific island countries, which the Japanese media have described as a new frontline in the country's competition for influence with China.

The visits, expected to take place from March 18 to 22, come after China reached a comprehensive consensus on many issues including security with the Solomon Islands last year. Hayashi thus intends to affirm the three island states' cooperation with a "free and open Indo-Pacific", and is considering suggesting security cooperation as well, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper report.

The "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept, first raised by Japan in 2016, smacks of the Cold War mentality as it portrays China's rise as a threat to the region that must be countered by a United States-led alliance of like-minded countries. That Japan is now going all out to pursue this confrontational approach against China in the South Pacific does not augur well for peace and stability in the region.

For decades China has been committed to close cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect with the Pacific island countries in such areas as poverty reduction, climate change and disaster prevention, which has brought tangible benefits to the people in the region, greatly improving their well-being and helping them achieve sustainable development. The wide range of consensus that China reached with the Solomon Islands on security and climate change during then foreign minister Wang Yi's visit to the Pacific nation last May injected new synergy into their win-win cooperation.

Yet China's commitment to building a community with a shared future with the Pacific island countries, especially the cooperation deal with the Solomon Islands, has been vilified by the US and its regional allies such as Japan as an attempt to expand its political and economic reach, and even military buildup, in the region. Such has been the extent of the smear campaign that Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly last September, said his country had been "unfairly targeted" by "a barrage of unwarranted and misplaced criticisms, misinformation and intimidation".

He also said that the Solomon Islands had adopted "a 'friends to all and enemies to none' foreign policy", suggesting that the country does not want to take sides in any geopolitical competition for sphere of influence.

What the Pacific island countries most urgently need are funds, technology, and expertise to help them build better infrastructure and deal with the climate change crisis, not geopolitical competition between major powers. Hopefully, Hayashi will bear that in mind during his upcoming trip to the three countries.