China is interested in the Pacific Islands as these thinly populated but resource-rich small islands are rife with geostrategic, diplomatic and economic opportunities. Certainly, once ties are established with these vital nations, Beijing’s larger goal of encompassing the Indo-Pacific can be easily achieved
China is on a mission to reach the entire globe to attain its ulterior goals. And to achieve the target, China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, popularly called the reincarnation of Chairman Mao Zedong, is trying hard to reset the world order.
Its latest round of expansion in the Pacific Islands is creating ripples both in the West and in its immediate neighbourhood such as Australia. With an eye to spreading China’s influence and to thwarting the US plan in the region, Xi is reaching out to these vital island nations.
In the midst of troublesome US-China relations, China’s nearness to the Pacific Island community is further straining the bilateral ties. Today, China is the third largest aid donor, and the second largest trading partner in the Pacific region. And more importantly, China is investing heavily in almost all the island nations in the region.
At the same time, China is becoming more assertive in its foreign policy goals and interested in demonstrating the country’s military might on many occasions (like the attack on Indian soldiers in June 2020 in Eastern Ladakh). Significantly, the expatriate Chinese business leaders are exercising strong influence over other nations like Australia and New Zealand. Precisely, the Chinese state power is at odds with the traditional and dominant powers in the Pacific region such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the US and France.
Why is China interested in the Pacific Islands? For China, these thinly populated but resource rich small islands are rife with geostrategic, diplomatic and economic opportunities. Certainly, once ties are established with these vital nations, Beijing’s larger goal of encompassing the Indo-Pacific can be easily achieved. The three of the major groups of islands in the Pacific Ocean are Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. China has already figured out critical trading outlets in the Pacific. Together these nations have more than 199 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). With a population of 1.4 billion, the pressure on both used and potential resources in China is growing very fast. For example, China has overused fishing. And also because of some of the unsustainable practices prevalent in many areas in the country, its fish reserves are depleting very fast. As a result, the commoners are experiencing skyrocketing prices in the fish markets. Further, this has forced the Chinese fishing business community to encroach EEZs of neighbouring nations and at times moving far to the South American nations like Argentina simply to catch the most prized tuna.
These far-flung islands are now receiving economic aid and diplomatic support from China. But all these are coming with multiple challenges for both Beijing and the rest of the Pacific community. It is clear that these islands are completely devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. So the aid and loans coming straightway from China are a huge source of sustenance for them. In return, all of them have to pay the price. Many of them are fast turning into China’s overseas colonies. Like in the South China Sea (SCS), where Beijing is trying to control one of the busiest sea communication lines in the world, it seems it is planning for a similar model for the Pacific Islands and probably for a long haul in these tiny nations. Some of the US Congressman are voicing concerns and saying this would be detrimental for these island territories and for the US and its allies in the region. A US Congressman rightly echoed two years back: “China is directly interested in expanding its power and influence and I would submit, creating dependence in the Pacific Islands.” This is what is worrying the immediate neighbours such Australia and New Zealand. These expansionist moves launched by the Communists in Beijing are not out of any sense of humanitarian concern for the Pacific Islands but it comes out of a sense of competition with the US.
Solomon Islands came to the limelight the last month as China signed a security treaty with the nation. Under the security agreement signed between the Solomon Islands and China, the former may request the latter to send forces to stabilise the situation in that country. It also allows China to offer a ring of security umbrella to its diplomats, businessmen and diaspora in the event of unrests similar to those of April 2004 and November 2021. What is raising fears is that this may gradually lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base in the island, like the one Beijing set up in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, in July 2017.
The recent visit of US President Joe Biden to the Indo-Pacific has once again reassured all the allies of America’s commitment to Asia. His visit to Asia in the last month clearly spoke out the fact that America’s long term foreign policy goal is solely directed towards Asia. But for now, the Biden Administration is focussing temporarily on Europe as Russia has invaded Ukraine, bringing the continent close to the Third World War.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has underlined his country’s strategy towards China immediately after Biden’s tour to the Indo-Pacific. He termed Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions as the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order”. Considering the initiatives so far taken by the Xi regime, the world is fast approaching a new turning point wherein the West is closely rebalancing its interests with that of China’s.
For years, China has been working to establish an alternative global order against the US-led liberal order. And now it is gradually reaching out to the Pacific community. It’s a warning sign not only for the island leaders but also for the traditional power players in the region. Now a new Labour Government in Australia under the leadership of Anthony Albanese, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong reaching out to the Pacific Island nations, might be able to bridge the trust deficit between the neighbours.
Much more than the stiff power competition between China and the US, the biggest challenge for the low-lying Pacific Islands is climate change. Thus, realising the immediate threat to the island community, Henry Puna, the former Prime Minister of the Cook Island and the current Secretary General of the Pacific’s top regional body, the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), stressed the need to immediately acting on the climate goals. He rightly says, “Our forum leaders have identified climate change as the single greatest threat facing our Blue Pacific region.” Again, he reiterated that “action to keep our world below 1.5 degrees is vital for the future prosperity and wellbeing of our region”. It must be pointed out here that instead of giving an anodyne welcome and bland formalities to the recently visited Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Wi to the region, (a country that is recorded today as the biggest carbon polluter of the world), Puna made it clear to him what the Pacific community is looking for.
The Pacific Islands are another battleground for big power rivalry. As China is growing, it is trying to bully the rest, particularly its neighbours like India. Meanwhile, America is mostly withdrawing from its traditional war fronts and crisis zones in the West and Central Asia. Washington knows well that today its major threat emerges from Beijing. Hence it is gathering all its resources and allies to focus on China whether through the Quad, the AUKUS or by pressing more engagements with the Pacific Islands. Keeping all these factors in the background, one can simply conclude that China’s recent forays into the Pacific are adding a fresh challenge to the US and its allies in the region.
(Dr Makhan Saikia has taught political science and international relations for over a decade in institutions of national and international repute after specialisation in globalisation and governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is the chief editor of the Journal of Global Studies, an international research journal)