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China brought a major initiative to Pacific Island nations. It has the U.S. worried

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Palm trees and beaches and turquoise seas - that's what the islands of the South Pacific are probably best known for. But in recent days, their strategic value has come into the spotlight. China's foreign minister recently wrapped up a visit to eight Pacific Island nations, and that has raised alarm in the U.S. and among its allies. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: A big headline from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's trip was that it failed to secure a multilateral trade and security agreement between China and 10 Pacific Island nations. But Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center, says that misses a more important point.

SATU LIMAYE: The real story here is not that China didn't get everything it wanted from this major diplomatic initiative. The real story is that China brought together such a major strategic and aspirational initiative into the Pacific. That's, to my mind, a very different Chinese strategy for the region.

RUWITCH: An ambitious strategy of engagement on multiple fronts with more to come.

LIMAYE: This is, if you will, the next frontier. We've seen it in Northeast Asia. We've seen it in Southeast Asia. We've seen it in South Asia.

RUWITCH: While the multilateral agreement fell through, Foreign Minister Wang returned home with a briefcase full of fresh bilateral deals on things like infrastructure, tourism, climate change and disaster mitigation.

IATI IATI: So if you just look at what was achieved, I think it's been a win-win situation for both the Pacific and China.

RUWITCH: Iati Iati is a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

IATI: What you've seen is China has been able to tap into the interest that Pacific Island countries have really wanted to be heard on - climate change, environment, agricultural development, infrastructure.

RUWITCH: Western countries, on the other hand, have historically had less focus on that, he says. Anna Powles with New Zealand's Massey University says that's been a major point of friction.

ANNA POWLES: There's been a deep frustration that their partners, particularly the United States and Australia, have talked to the Pacific countries about their concerns around strategic competition, about China, and yet Pacific countries have been deeply frustrated that their paramount security concern has not been acknowledged.

RUWITCH: After meeting Wang Yi in Suva last week, Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama didn't mince any words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FRANK BAINIMARAMA: Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job has been lost to a pandemic or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities.

RUWITCH: That's not to say there are no worries among Pacific nations about Beijing's push into the region. The fate of China's proposed multilateral agreement made that clear. For the U.S. and its allies, concerns soared when China and the Solomon Islands signed a security cooperation deal in April. Some think it could pave the way for a Chinese navy base there - a springboard in a region where the U.S. military has a big presence. But Patricia Kim with the Brookings Institution says the U.S. and its allies are starting to wrap their heads around the idea that their relationship with the Pacific Islands can't just be about China.

PATRICIA KIM: And so there's been this effort to say that we're listening to the Pacific Islands. We want to work together on issues that matter to them.

RUWITCH: China's economic engagement, she says, could be a catalyst.

KIM: I think in some ways, this can be good for Pacific Island states because there's clearly been a boost of attention from around the world, and I think they can use this to their advantage.

RUWITCH: If China redoubles its efforts to forge security ties there though, the West will inevitably react, and all that attention may be somewhat less of an advantage.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.