A multinational military training exercise involving the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji ended on the Pacific island on Friday. The 11-Day Cartwheel 2022 Exercise has been criticized by China for trying to expand its influence in the South Pacific.
Named after Operation Cartwheel — a major military operation for the Allies in the Pacific during World War II — the exercise was aimed at building “expeditionary readiness and interoperability,” according to a statement. press release from the US embassy in Suva.
About 270 troops from five countries participated in exercises in both jungle and urban environments.
The commander of the New Zealand Force’s land component, Brigadier General Hugh McAslan, told New Zealand media that Exercise Cartwheel provided a platform for participating troops to work together, preparing them for military action and other crises.
“We have a duty to work with these people… We are part of the Pacific,” McAslan said.
Chinese officials have not yet said anything about the outcome of the exercise, but Chinese state media have made disparaging remarks about what they call “one of the US’s key battlegrounds in their game with China.”
the hawks Global times said by holding joint exercises in Fiji, the US wanted to “send a signal to China and regional countries in the South Pacific”.
The exercises should be seen as “an attempt to counter China’s influence in the region,” the paper said.
Influence the battle
Song Zhongping, a regular Global Times commentator, said the UK, a country outside the region, “went all the way to the South Pacific to participate in the exercises.”
“Britain is planning to meddle in Asia-Pacific affairs…London has become one of the most active allies of the US, be it China or Russia,” Song said.
“The US has mobilized its alliance system to suppress China,” the paper said, adding that “South Pacific regional countries are unhappy with the US for trying to turn the region into an anti-China battleground.”
China and the Solomon Islands confirmed in April that they had signed a secret security agreement and while details of the pact have not been made public, there are concerns that Beijing may be able to deploy security forces there in the future.
In recent years, China has developed closer ties with countries in the South Pacific, courting them with infrastructure loans and economic aid, as well as military exchanges.
“Our aid to island countries is genuine and results-oriented with no political commitments,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman last week.
Beijing has not concealed its ambition to set up military bases in the region. In 2018, media reports of China’s plan to build a base in Vanuatu led to a stern warning from then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
However, China failed to reach a sweeping trade and security deal — the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision — during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of the Pacific in May.
American Charm Offensive
For his part, In recent months, the US has stepped up its efforts to partner with Pacific island nations, including: top officials for the Indo-Pacific region who actively travel to the region and meet with their Pacific counterparts.
Just last week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with some senior officials in the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii to discuss deepening relations with countries in the region.
In July, at the virtual meeting of leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum, chaired by the Prime Minister of Fiji, US Vice President Kamala Harris announced a series of commitments to strengthen the US-Pacific partnership, including the establishment of new US embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, in addition to the reopening of the embassy in the Solomon Islands.
The US government also pledged to triple funding for the Forum Fisheries Agency to $60 million a year over the next ten years.
The State Department is about to renew strategic partnership agreements, called “Compacts of Free Association,” or COFAs, with the three Pacific islands, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, according to the Presidential Special Envoy Joseph Yun.
The COFAs, which were originally signed between the US and the three Pacific island nations in the 1980s and which will soon expire, allow the US to deploy military forces in the agreement areas and prevent foreign military personnel from accessing the waters, the airspace of those countries and land.
The first-ever US-Pacific Island Country Summit will take place September 28-29 in Washington, DC, the White House said in a statement earlier this month.