China’s tryst in the South Pacific

Prarthana Basu, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

The focus of attention of geopolitics now lie greatly in the Indo-Pacific region, especially the South Pacific islands, which have gained prominence over the years due to varied reasons such as: climate change, geo-strategic importance etc. Even though the South Pacific islands are geographically located far-off in the middle of the Pacific Ocean they occupy a large portion which has proven to be of great strategic importance for all the major contending powers. Currently, this area shows great power struggle which is two-pronged: China and Taiwan and China and the US. Although Australia and Britain also happen to be major players trying to spread their influence over these islands, the South Pacific now happens to be one of the highly contested regions among these powers.

The allegiance of the South Pacific countries is grossly divided between Taiwan and China. While countries such as Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu have established diplomatic ties with Taiwan, China is diplomatically recognized by the Cook Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Federal States of Micronesia and Niue.

Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to increase his sphere of influence among those six countries which still remain under the ambit of its ‘breakaway province’, by upholding a summit for all the South Pacific countries in the month of November (dates if available) in New Papua Guinea, which would be followed by the APEC summit. Although interestingly, his ambitions suffered damage when in the Pacific Islands Summit, Du Qiwen, the Chinese envoy reportedly misbehaved in the meeting and the President of Narua, Baron Divavesi Waqa voraciously voiced his opinion and went loggerhead with him.

While most of the countries are certainly not proposed to the idea of the Chinese ‘bullying’ them into joining sides with them, what concerns them more is the overshadowing clout of ‘debt trap diplomacy’, which is one of the ‘wicked’ ways in which China has gained control over many regions; brought forth by the mega Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. One of the countries is Tonga which has begun its first round of repayment of about US$ 115 million, to reconstruct its capital Nuku’alofa. While in the short term these loans does bring relief to these small countries which intend to build their infrastructure in order to develop themselves, many analysts argue that the estimated repayment amount to a bare minimum for the massive BRI’s budget which is US$ 1 trillion, for Tonga, its equivalent to one-third of its annual GDP and would also lead to doubling of its national debt. Sources also suggest that Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu are also underway the same path as Tonga, indebted heavily to China.

Earlier, in the month of April, concerns were raised among countries such as Australia, New Zealand the US when one of the news reports suggested that Beijing intends to construct a permanent naval base in Vanuatu. Although this apparent ‘rumor’ was sorted out by the Foreign Minister of Vanuatu, there still remains uncertainty over China’s many attempts to woo these countries into its camp. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand find such developments (if any), alarming and intend to upkeep the state of serenity over the South Pacific region and maintain stability and security, unlike the situations in the other parts of the Pacific Ocean such as South China Sea, East China Sea and the Indian Ocean region. While one is yet to see how China’s larger maritime ambitions of becoming a blue water navy comes to play, currently its BRI ambitions have paved its way to the South Pacific region and the forbearing implications of it seem to have caused countries such as Australia, New Zealand, US and Taiwan to make efforts to hold their ground in the region.

One of the reasons for China’s interest and engagement activities in the region has been interpreted as an important way to counter the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. According to the statement given by the US congressional commission, the increasing Chinese presence in the region might prove detrimental to US interests which intend to uphold their existing presence in the region. More so, while China makes its bids against Taiwan and wins over the South Pacific countries, this hampers Taiwan’s diplomatic-political interests while it loses its face in the international arena, considering the fact that it is only left with 17 diplomatic allies. Countries such as Micronesia and Palau seem to be totally smitten by China despite of more investments made by the US.

Australia seems to be actively resisting Chinese efforts by offering their services at cheaper costs; a classic example is a tussle with Huawei in the Solomon Islands over high-speed internet cable as well as Black Rock Camp in Nadi over funding for building camps for police and peacekeeping officers. But, it also suffered setbacks in its relations with Fiji, and undoubtedly China took advantage of the situation.

For the US, the Chinese presence threatens its military standpoint in the region. Analysts argue that the American bases in Guam and the BMD test sites in Kwajeilin Atoll in the Marshall Islands would seriously face serious repercussions if their sea line of communications is overtaken by China. More so, the South Pacific region also lies close to the American islands: Midway Island and Hawaii. Thus, in the recent Pacific Island Forum, US pledged an investment of US$ 7 million for military purposes for Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji, with an annual US$ 750,000 for the international naval exercises held in the region.

Countries such as Australia and Britain intend to establish some sort of diplomatic presence over the South Pacific countries by setting up commissionaires and embassies, although the effectiveness of that largely depends on the willingness to engage and their larger intentions which guide their motives. In order to create an impression with the South Pacific countries, some points to remember might be: to establish ties with the local populace, address to the larger concerns over climate change, need for infrastructural investments and creation of economic opportunities at the global level. This seems to be quite a task for these countries who primarily are acting out due to their probable fear over Chinese expansion in the region. China, on the other hand, celebrates the idea of the South Pacific islands for ‘looking north’ and strengthen their ties with Beijing. Now, if only China is able to monitor its behavior with respect to handling its relations with the South Pacific countries and not act out aggressively (as mentioned earlier), there would be some prospects for a ‘win’ with regards to its presence in the South Pacific region. Although, there is no doubt that the battle is on.

This blog was originally published online as ‘The Geopolitics of the South Pacific Islands: A Synoptic View of the Current Scenario’ on International Policy Digest in Medium on 18 September 2018


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