China has yet to learn the rules of the Pacific chess game
China’s growing influence in the Pacific Ocean microstates has raised alarm bells among the powers that traditionally dominated the region – Australia, New Zealand and the United States. If they want to stop Beijing’s advance, they’re going to have to start offering more in return.
A security pact with the Solomon Islands earlier this year first showed the extent of Beijing’s ambitions, allowing Chinese police and military to operate in the country. Similar deals were offered to a group of 10 countries alongside a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in May. Wang is now seeking to meet with foreign ministers from island nations at the same time leaders gather in July for the annual Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s top multilateral body.
China can afford to be so forceful in its diplomacy because the status quo has become obsolete and no longer clearly serves the interests of these governments. Traditionally, the Pacific has been divided between an Australian sphere of influence in the mountainous and more populated territories of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia; a New Zealand sphere in the Polynesian archipelagos south of the equator; and an American in the small islands of Micronesia between Hawaii and Guam north of the equator.
It is difficult to say that the region has done very well with this arrangement. Thanks to their geographic isolation and tiny populations, Pacific states are doing far worse than small island nations elsewhere in the world. Outside of Fiji, tourism is rudimentary; to date, most merchandise exports consist of fish, coconuts and pearls. The offshore financial centers that helped make Mauritius and many Caribbean countries relatively wealthy were eliminated here before being established. Income levels, when adjusted for the relatively high cost of living, are comparable to those in sub-Saharan Africa:
However, what the Pacific nations lack in economic power, they make up for with a strong card: their sovereignty. If you include East Timor, Pacific island nations make up 13 of the 38 members of the Small Island Developing States grouping at the UN. This bloc, in theory, has greater voting power than the 27 nations of the European Union, or the 22 non-island states of the Americas, helping to secure committee appointments and diplomatic victories for its allies. Additionally, Melanesian countries like the Solomon Islands lie within 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of the Australian coast, making the Chinese military presence a concern for Canberra.
Island governments have a long tradition of trading diplomacy for development aid. Four of the 14 states that recognize Taiwan instead of mainland China are in the Pacific; three others have in the past switched allegiance between Taipei and Beijing, taking advantage of the geopolitical competition between the powers.
According to Sarina Theys, senior lecturer in diplomacy at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, their willingness to accept more substantial overtures from Beijing is a sign that these nations are becoming more assertive. “They realize they have more power than they initially thought,” she says. “They are becoming more vocal and claiming their place on the world stage.”
In this sense, the growing interest of China is perceived locally not so much as a threat, but as an opportunity to gain ground with the great traditional powers of the periphery of the Pacific. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s first act after taking office in the country’s May election was a diplomatic visit to woo governments attracted by Beijing’s overtures. A more open door for labor and permanent migration to Australia is also promised by Wong’s government.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in March appointed the former US ambassador to Malaysia to oversee the renewal of pacts expiring over the next two years with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, three nations closely aligned with America through migration. and development agreements.
On a per capita basis, the major Pacific powers have been extraordinarily generous in aid and development assistance over the years. It is unclear, however, whether Beijing’s investment promises will materialize or be effective if they do materialize. The experience of countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which find themselves with too much debt and underutilized infrastructure, recommends a policy of prudence.
China is also obviously not a better player on the biggest problem for island governments – global warming which threatens the viability of even some of the lowest states.
“Climate change is an existential challenge in the region,” Theys says. “It is the most significant threat to the security of Pacific island states.”
Yet a more competitive diplomatic space in the Pacific is very much in the region’s interest, even if it annoys neighbors who have grown accustomed to the status quo. By entertaining but ultimately rejecting Wang’s proposed 10-nation security pact, island governments have shown themselves to be increasingly adept at the traditional art of minor powers – pitting major nations against each other.
The great powers will have to pay more attention to the Pacific in their future relations. For island governments, this is not a bad thing.