Hong Kong | June 6, 2022

The thinly populated atolls and volcanic archipelagos that make up the South Pacific’s island nations—which are recognized more for tourism than for their valuable natural resources—might not initially appear to be a significant geopolitical prize.

However, Pacific Island nations have recently emerged as the scene of a tremendous power struggle between China and the United States.

Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, and Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the prime minister of Samoa, are present during an agreement signing ceremony in Apia.

The recent conclusion of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-day trip of eight nations to encourage collaboration and a broad, regional security and economic plan with the potential to dramatically increase Beijing’s influence in the South Pacific brought that conflict into stark relief.

Wang’s trip and the information about the potential deal sent Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, which have long-standing ties to the South Pacific, reeling. Washington pledged last week to step up its own support for the area, and Canberra sent its foreign minister on a competing diplomatic tour.

Others, such as the Prime Minister of Fiji, Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, reacted angrily to the posturing and emphasized the significance of other issues, such as climate change. He said that “geopolitical point scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas.”

Wang did leave behind a clear message of China’s interest in the region—and raised concerns that these island nations, which have a long history of strategic importance—will have little choice but to navigate the escalating tensions between major powers. China’s bid for a larger, regional pact ultimately did not win support at a 10-country meeting last week.

Island hopping

Beijing is strengthening its ties with capitals around the South Pacific, as seen from Washington and Canberra, in an effort to possibly leverage infrastructure accords or even relatively minor security arrangements into a military footing.

That would sever the two nations’ military ties to the South Pacific, where the US maintains military installations and a Compact of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Republic of Palau, which grants it military operating privileges over these countries’ airspace and waters.

Australia has its own navy in the area and has long-standing defense and security relationships with the governments of surrounding islands, notably in the areas of peacekeeping and military training. Both Australia and New Zealand are part of regional and bilateral security pacts in the Pacific.

Last week, US President Joe Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released a joint statement in which they expressed concern about “the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values.” The statement specifically mentioned the region.

Threats to the status quo in the region are also reminiscent of World War II, when imperial Japan utilized the islands to threaten Australia before being included in an American “island hopping” attack that ultimately contributed to the Pacific’s turning point.

Timothy Heath, a senior international military researcher at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, stated that the islands are directly adjacent to a major shipping route used by US and Australian merchant ships and naval vessels.

“China could send ships and planes to the islands on a temporary basis if it could secure (military) basing rights. He said that even a strengthened presence, short of one involving military force, may enable China in “collecting critical intelligence on US and Australian military operations.” (Its) ships and aircraft could endanger US and Australian ships and aircraft that went by, he said.”

Winning friends

China has long been interested in fostering relations with the nations of the Pacific Islands. A newly outward-looking China was embarking on a path to become an economic and diplomatic partner for Pacific island countries in the early 2000s, not least of all as it sought to win friends away from Taiwan, which is now only formally recognized by four of the South Pacific’s 14 countries after the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched allegiance to China in 2019. At the same time, the US was turning its focus to perceived threats in the Middle East.

Beijing’s prominence in the Pacific Islands has increased as well in recent years as it has pursued a more assertive foreign policy and increased development financing globally in an effort to increase its influence internationally. Highways in Papua New Guinea, bridges in Fiji, a national sports stadium for the Solomon Islands to host the Pacific Games, and other well-publicized projects have all received Chinese support. China has also dispatched high-level envoys to the region, including two trips by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, once in 2014 and once in 2018. Additionally, it has grown to be a significant trading partner for Pacific Island economies.

According to data gathered by the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, Australia has continued to be the region’s leading aid contributor for the previous five years. However, experts claim that in some areas, the view of China as a partner is more expedient than that of conventional donors.

Celsus Talifilu, a political advisor based in Solomon Islands’ Malaita Province who has been a vocal critic of how the national government has handled its recent relations with China, said: “There is an idea that China would do more.”

“It’s possible that our politicians believe that dealing with China will make it simpler to put policies into action swiftly on the ground, in comparison to other donors that have been in the Solomons for a long time yet have been very slow,

Containment concerns

Washington’s perception of Beijing’s diplomacy and outreach, notably in the South Pacific, has shifted as a result of Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its constantly growing navy.

After China and the Solomon Islands inked a security pact in April, raising worries that this may open the door for Beijing to station troops there, worries that Beijing may have military ambitions in the area were heightened.

The foreign minister, Wang, has been quick to dismiss claims that China’s recent actions had a military component. Regarding the Solomons deal, Wang has stated categorically that Beijing has no intention of establishing military installations. where he stated that there are “no plans to scramble for influence.”

Following a meeting with Pacific Island leaders last week, Wang declared: “China and developing countries realizing mutual development and prosperity will make the world fairer, more harmonious, and stable.”

Although many analysts believe Beijing is still far from having a military presence, they do concur that growing its influence abroad would be a sensible next step for an ambitious state like China.

Denghua Zhang, a research fellow at The Australia National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs in Canberra, asserted that it should come as no surprise that as China develops, so will its security interests in the (South Pacific) region.

One factor could be worries about China being encircled by the US and its allies, which are frequently discussed by Chinese academicians and strategists. According to Zhang, this has strengthened the idea of severing the “island chains” that are seen as encircling China, in particular, with military bases on islands close to China and in the Pacific. These include US military installations in the Philippines as well as bases on Guam and Japan.

This worry was expressed by senior researcher Liu Ming of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and his co-authors in their analysis of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, which was published last year. They stated: “The [American] principle of containment is to politically isolate China throughout the region by expanding a network of allies and partners, in order to draw more “Indo-Pacific” countries into the US camp.”

Blue Pacific

Other nations are trying to reenergize their presence in response to China’s expanding influence, from Australia’s “Step-Up” policy and New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset,” both of which were announced in 2018, to Washington’s “Pacific Pledge,” which was announced a year later.

In order to make sure that they continue to be the partners of choice and that China does not gain the upper hand, they have all developed these new initiatives for the Pacific, according to Sandra Tarte, an associate professor at the University of the South Pacific’s School of Law and Social Sciences in Fiji.

For the Pacific Island nations, there is some benefit in that while major powers compete with one another, local governments may receive more attention and leverage.

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, associate professor of Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii at Mnoa, noted that the people of the Pacific Islands “are not new to global, geopolitical struggle.”

He cites a time span from the 1800s, when colonial rivalries were concentrated on the islands, through the Cold War, when developing Pacific Island nations were under pressure to reject Soviet advances. The balancing act, however, might become more challenging over time if US-China tensions continue to rise, according to Kabutaulaka.

That might have been a contributing reason in last week’s failure of Beijing’s ambitious agreement. The “Blue Pacific” concept, which emphasizes making decisions concerning the region collectively after consulting with all members, could be another.

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, prime minister of Samoa, said: “Our position was that you cannot have regional agreement when the region has not met to debate it.”

Wang did sign a number of bilateral agreements, including ones relating to equipment for law enforcement, disaster management, and economic cooperation. Competition and divergent viewpoints on dealing with China might undermine regional cohesion even in the absence of a deal — this time — according to Kabutaulaka.

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