In a visit that comes as the second of its kind, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi embarked on a tour to the Pacific Islands in late May and early June to touch on several security, economic, and development issues. Wang’s visit followed the visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea and Japan. The visit also comes within the context of maneuvers that China is implementing near Taiwan, either independently or collaboratively with Russia.
This paper aims at answering questions about the position of the Pacific islands in the Chinese strategy and looks into the outcomes of Wang’s tour, towards exploring the challenges facing China’s implementation of its policies in the region.
The Pacific Islands in China’s Strategy
In recent years, the South Pacific region has been gaining geopolitical importance, particularly with the growing Chinese presence. The region is renowned for its untouched shorelines, geographical and cultural diversity, and unique development challenges. Geographically, the Pacific nations are located in the Melanesian sub-region along the east coast of Australia. Controlling this area was of a critical importance during the World War to ensure maintaining logistical supply lines and concentration of military forces.
South Pacific states generally suffer aggravated development challenges and are among the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters, which are expected to increase significantly due to climate change, causing these states to become more dependent on aid. Here, China proved to have an immense significance as an aid donor, underscoring its respect for the Pacific Islands as equal partners in development and highlighting the opportunities for the Pacific goods in the enormous Chinese market.
While China has had long-standing presence in the South Pacific region and notwithstanding the diplomatic rivalry between China and Taiwan in the region, China’s commercial activity, aid, diplomatic support, and trade has grown remarkably, particularly since 2006. China’s trade volume with Taiwan exceeded that of Taiwan with Australia in 2013. From 1992 to 2021, China’s trade with the Pacific islands achieved an annual increase of 13 percent.
With regard to aid, between 2006 and 2017, China provided nearly $1.5 billion to the Pacific Islands through a combination of grants and loans. Since 2017, China has become the third largest donor to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) after Australia and New Zealand, contributing 8 percent of the region’s total foreign aid between 2011 and 2017.
At large, China’s aid is directed to major infrastructure projects funded through soft loans. Perhaps this is what makes its aid more notable despite China not being the largest donor. Lending has been used as a means to get state-owned companies into the region, which are now competing in the business activities, leading the volume of Chinese investments in the region to reach $958 million in 2017, i.e. nearly six times the foreign aid activities.
China will later capitalize on its aid to the region to get the backing of these countries in the United Nations on issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, as well as human rights issues. Despite the Pacific countries undertaking to pursue the “One China” policy, there remain countries that are allies to Taiwan, including Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Nauru.
Strategically, China’s rapprochement with the Pacific Islands is motivated by developing cooperation with countries of the South and partnerships with developed countries, thus competing with developing countries. Perhaps, this manifested itself in Wang’s visit, which was driven by the rivalry between China and US-allied countries in the region. On the one hand, countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) announced increasing the support provided to Indo-Pacific countries. Earlier, US President Joe Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Meanwhile, details of cooperation arrangements between the Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Shandong and the Pacific islands were released, reflecting the close relations between China and the Pacific Islands.
In terms of security, the Pacific islands –particularly those close to China– will have a considerable security significance in the longer term, where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) targets developing its naval strategy by establishing military bases in the islands standing close to China, which the United States and its allies may use to encircle China. This makes the role of these islands critical to the Sino-US rivalry that may develop into a military one. This explains why the China-Solomon Islands bilateral security cooperation have raised concerns.
Outcomes of Wang’s Visit
In the course of Wang’s tour, the PIF was held in Fiji bringing together 10 Pacific nations with Chinese officials. In addition, Wang held a virtual meeting with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Cook Islands, and Niue. On the margins on the PIF, Wang was expected to discuss the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision and the Five-Year Common development Plan between China and the Pacific Island countries, both of which include details about the security cooperation, such as providing police training for the region and promoting cooperation in cybersecurity. Arguably, this forum targeted establishing a bloc that involves China and the Pacific Islands.
Despite the momentum that Wang’s visit gained, discussion of these cooperation plans was deferred due to the lack of consensus among Pacific leaders on their nature and potential negative effects on regional security, particularly given the sensitivity of cooperation in the security field. Therefore, cooperation will most likely be directed to areas such as climate change, poverty alleviation, agriculture, and disaster relief. Overall, the visit didn’t give rise to solid outcomes. Perhaps this could be attributed to the following reasons:
- Micronesia’s Rejection of the Chinese Initiatives
The initiatives proposed by Wang were adjourned due to considerations relating to safeguarding sovereignty. In this vein, President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo viewed China’s proposal for a free trade area as disingenuous, having a hidden agenda targeting controlling resources of the Pacific states through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Panuelo set what happened in the Solomon Islands as an example, where freedom of the press was restricted and the Kiribati Islands were forced to open their borders to the Chinese delegation despite the Covid-19 lockdown.
Conversely, Panuelo supported the United States and Australia positions, seeing their presence as serving the “benevolent hegemony” that limits “Chinization” of the islands and offering alternatives that help preserve the values, freedoms, and basic features of the Pacific countries. The Samoa Islands’ position was not any different, where its leadership viewed that the Pacific Islands have the sufficient time to look into China’s initiatives. Driven by fear of debt risks the Samoa Islands didn’t approve of the Vaiusu Bay port project. This opposing position of Panuelo is in contradiction to what its President previously stated during his visit to China in 2019, that his country’s friendly relations with China are rising to new levels.
- The US-Australian Counter-Involvement
For the Pacific Islands, a positive outcome of Wang’s tour was the visibility of counter moves of Australia and the United States, the traditional allies in the region. For instance, the new Australian Prime Minister, Penny Wong, led conversations about climate change in the PIF, and tried to highlight the economic needs of the Pacific Islands, pointing out that more people from the Islands will be allowed into Australia on better terms, a declaration that was well received by the beleaguered Pacific economies.
The White House announced that Fiji will join Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a substitute to the joint development deal announced by China, to include 12 other countries, including India, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Combined, these countries account for 40 percent of global GDP. The IPEF aims at increasing the US economic engagement in the region.
A report issued by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in June 2018 indicated that the existence of a Chinese military base in the South Pacific could pose future obstacles to US strategic access to the Pacific Islands.
As indicated, the QSD statement of May 2022 maintained that cooperation with the Pacific Islands will be strengthened, towards achieving economic development, improving the health infrastructure, enhancing environmental resilience, and protecting the Pacific Islands’ maritime security.
- The Dialectical Relationship between the Pacific Islands and Taiwan
Recognition of Taiwan has been a vital issue for Beijing. One of the successes of Wang’s visit was the acceptance of 10 (out of 14) islands in the Pacific Ocean of the “One China” policy. In September 2019, the Solomon Islands –the third most populous country in the Pacific Ocean– and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Since then, Beijing has provided aid worth $500 million. China then capitalized on this diplomatic shift as a stepping-stone to expand its political and military presence in the South Pacific.
Last April, China signed a security cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands, under which Solomon Islands may request China to send police, military, and other law enforcement forces to the country. This agreement may pave the way for China to expand its military presence in the Indo-Pacific. The agreement included a proposal that China could, pursuant to its need and subject to the approval of the Solomon Islands, conduct ship visits, carry out logistical supply operations, stop, and transit in the Solomon Islands (a country that has been experiencing turmoil recently), allowing the Chinese police to be deployed at the request of the Islands to maintain social order. This agreement came after the United States announced reopening of its embassy in the islands after its closure in 1993.
China further threatened to impose sanctions on countries that recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty and that establish bilateral relations with it. In effect, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Nauru still recognize Taiwan and all have confirmed maintaining their diplomatic relationship with Taipei in March 2022. In 2018, China threatened Palau to switch its diplomatic relations with Taiwan or it will suffer economic difficulties. Seemingly, this will not affect Palau’s position, whose president visited Taiwan in the same year, underscoring he would not withdraw his support for Taiwan, even if Palau was the only country providing such support.
- Oscillations of the Pacific Islands between Major Powers
While Australia promotes that the Pacific Islands have convergent perspectives, there are indeed differences among them, as has been manifested in the blanket rejection of the Chinese agreements by Samoa and Micronesia and their move to signing a security agreement with the United States. Additionally, Fiji and the Solomon Islands have independent political positions, which leaves them room for diplomatic maneuvering. Fiji, for example, is one of the founders of the IPEF that Biden launched to counter the Chinese influence, but at the same time, it is the first country within the Pacific Islands to establish diplomatic relations with China and is China’s second largest trading partner in the South Pacific. Following the Chinese President’s visit to the island in 2014, China’s direct investment in Fiji has amounted to $183 million.
Fiji also opposes the “consensus” principle among the Pacific islands. For it, priority should be given to building consensus, allowing for more coordination in the future. While Fiji rejected China’s security agreement, it signed three economic cooperation agreements with Beijing and, like China, expressed resentment of the West’s criticism of China’s zero-tolerance Covid strategy and climate policies, which showed that Fiji sides with China on some important issues.
Challenges Facing China
Given the outcomes of Wang’s visit and priorities of China’s strategy in the Pacific islands, there is still uncertainty over how China will exercise its new influence in the region. In this respect, several challenges must be taken into consideration, including the following:
- First, if China aspires to assert its influence on the Pacific Islands through diplomacy, debt, or security agreements that allows for establishing military bases, it will find itself competing with the international powers that have influence in the region, including the United States and its allies such as Australia. While Wang’s visit hasn’t fully achieved its intended goals, it somehow managed to reduce the possibility of creating an Anti-China coalition among the Pacific islands.
- Notably, the Pacific islands have no interest in militarization of the region and they defend their sovereignty even if they are ready to provide diplomatic support to China. Establishing a military base will generally encounter many difficulties if the sovereignty of those countries is to be violated. However, the inadequate capacity of those countries may be a catalyst for rival powers that seem to be snapping at each other’s heels. After China and Vanuatu signed an agreement to build a new wharf, Australia and the United States entered into partnership with Papua New Guinea, which indicates that this competition will be on the rise.
- China is facing a great difficulty maintaining momentum in the South Pacific. While China is a principal development partner with Pacific governments, the debts it provided are now a subject of thorough consideration in the Chinese interior. Since 2018, no Pacific country has received new debts from China, except for Vanuatu. On the other hand, it is necessary to take into account the engagement of other traditional parties in the region, such as Australia that has become the largest donor to the Pacific countries, the largest investor, and the main source of tourism in the region.
- Covid-19, too, posed a challenge for China in the Pacific Islands, given the little support that China provided to the Pacific islands compared to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, let alone the exchange of accusations between China and those. China accused Australia of sabotaging the Sinopharm vaccine in Papua New Guinea and threatening senior officials in Papua Guinea if they receive the Chinese vaccine. At the same time, Australia was said to be providing up to 15 million doses of vaccine to the Pacific region by mid-2022. China underscores that its efforts are intended to make sure vaccines have a global public good and promote the health of the global community.