A multinational military training exercise involving the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji ended on Friday in the Pacific island nation. The 11-day Cartwheel 2022 exercise drew criticism from China, which has sought to expand influence in the South Pacific.
The exercise, named after Operation Cartwheel — a major Allied military operation in the Pacific during World War II — aimed to build “expeditionary readiness and interoperability,” according to a Press release from the US Embassy in Suva.
About 270 troops from five nations took part in exercises conducted in both jungle and urban environments.
New Zealand Defense Force Land Component Commander Brigadier General Hugh McAslan told NZ media that Exercise Cartwheel provided a platform for participating forces to work together, build readiness for military action and other crises.
“We have an obligation to work with these people… We are part of the Pacific,” McAslan was quoted as saying.
Chinese officials have not yet said anything about the end of the exercise, but China’s state media has made disparaging remarks about what it calls “another of the US’s important battlegrounds in its game with China.”
The hawkish one Global Times said by conducting 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 newspaper said.
Struggle for influence
Song Zhongping, a Global Times regular commentator, was quoted as saying that Britain, a country outside the region, “went all the way to the South Pacific to participate in the exercises.”
“Britain plans to meddle in Asia-Pacific affairs… London has become one of the US’s most active allies, be it when targeting China or Russia,” Song said.
“The United States has mobilized its alliance system to suppress China,” the newspaper said, adding that “regional countries in the South Pacific are not happy with the United States 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 sincere and results-oriented without political conditions,” a Chinese foreign ministry said spokesperson last week.
Beijing has made no secret of its ambition to establish 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 comprehensive trade and security agreement – the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision – during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Pacific tour in May.
american charm offensive
For its part, The United States has in recent months increased its efforts to engage with Pacific Island nations, with top officials of the Indo-Pacific region actively traveling to the region and meeting with their counterparts in the Pacific.
Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with a number of senior Pacific officials in Hawaii, where she discussed deepening relations with countries in the region.
In July, at the virtual Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, chaired by the Fijian Prime Minister, 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, alongside 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 for the next ten 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, originally signed between the US and the three Pacific island nations during the 1980s and soon to expire, allow the US to operate armed forces in the agreement areas as well as deny foreign military access to those countries’ waters, airspace and land.
The first-ever US-Pacific Island summit will take place on 28-29 September in Washington, DC, The White House said in a statement earlier this month.