Re-emerging importance of South Pacific Islands

Ms. Prarthana Basu, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

At the Pacific Islands Forum in September this year, Nauru, a ‘small’ island country, accused China of heavy-handed behaviour in its attempts to ‘buy’ its way through the region. This brings into sharp focus the increasing centrality of the South Pacific region in the tumultuous geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific. The South  Pacific islands have come into prominence owing to two main factors: climate change, and several layers of power tussles, the most significant of which is between China and the US.

Climate change has had a devastating impact on several island countries of the region, including but not limited to flooding and tsunamis, which has also fuelled fears about its future consequences. On the strategic tussle front, China has invested heavily in these islands to counter Taiwan’s growing relationships in the region, such as with Nauru, in addition to similar jostling for influence with the US and Australia, and to add impetus to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Can these countries use their strategic positioning to their advantage, specifically to bring international attention to their concerns regarding climate change, and perhaps even motivate corrective action?

Re-emergence of the South Pacific

The South Pacific is a sub-region of the Indo-Pacific with extensive exclusive economic zones, and consists of fourteen island countries also known as Pacific Island Countries (PICs). The PICs have historically been considered to have great strategic value, whether it is for intelligence operations, naval bases, or as off-shore nuclear testing sites. For these reasons, and for their strategic proximity to Japan, these countries came under US dominance during World War II. In the current circumstances, China’s expanding sphere of influence and the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy have both motivated the PICs’ reemergence. China appears to be making its way down south to these island countries and challenging the regional dominance traditionally enjoyed by Australia, New Zealand, the US and Taiwan.

Regional Power Play

While most of the PICs have established diplomatic ties with China, there are also some, such as Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, that also continue to recognise Taiwan as a state.

China is now the second largest aid donor in the South Pacific region, promising both infrastructure development and employment opportunities. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently announced his intention to hold a summit with all the South Pacific countries in November this year. While the prospect of easy loans and investments is certainly attractive, the possibility of being entangled in debt traps with China appears to be holding some PICs back from intensifying their engagement with China. In addition, the rumoured news about China building a permanent naval base in Vanuatu has led to further wariness in Australia, New Zealand and the US, given how this development might threaten their naval positioning in the region. Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, and Guam, which is in the vicinity, both have US military bases. If in the future China manages to further extend its naval arm in the region, it would expose US’ maritime operations, possibly also making the sea lines of communication (SLOC) vulnerable.

Climate Change

The PICs face a battery of environmental challenges that has significantly affected the region’s biodiversity and ecosystem. This has naturally had other negative consequences, including, crucially, on the livelihoods of many coastal communities. However, their concerns regarding climate change have often not found enough traction on international platforms, where the agendas are set by the big players. However, in recent COP meetings, these countries have managed to have their concerns discussed by European countries such as the UKFrance etc, as well as Asian powers such as China and India. Their representation in various international summits has also been increasing; for example, the recent COP23 meeting that initiated the Talanoa Dialogue.  This may be attributed to the leverage the PICs have in their ability to act as a ‘bloc’ in negotiating issues that are important to them, which undoubtedly is a consequence also of their strategic role in the South Pacific, which many big powers seem to eyeing as an area of influence.

The South Pacific region, with its strategically important island countries, has reentered the popular geopolitical imagination on the basis of extra-regional power contestation and the far-reaching implications of climate change. How these factors determine the trajectory of these PICs’ future, and how well they are able to negotiate their way – whether it is in regional power play or in the interest of safeguarding themselves from the impact of climate change – is an evolving development, and merits closer scrutiny.

This blog was originally published online as “Between BRI and the Indo-Pacific: The Geopolitics of the South Pacific” by Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies on 10 October 2018.

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