China’s growing influence in Pacific Ocean microstates has raised alarm among the powers that traditionally dominated the region — Australia, New Zealand and the US. If they want to halt Beijing’s advance, they must start offering more in return.
A security pact with the Solomon Islands earlier this year first showed the scope of Beijing’s ambitions, permitting China’s police and military to operate in the country. Similar deals were offered to a group of 10 countries alongside a visit by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) in May.
Wang is seeking a meeting with ministers of the island countries at the same time that leaders assemble next week for the annual Pacific Islands Forum, the main multilateral body for the region.
China can afford to be so energetic in its diplomacy because the status quo has grown stale and is no longer serving the interests of these governments.
The Pacific has traditionally been divided between an Australian sphere of influence in the mountainous, more populous territories of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia; a New Zealand sphere in the Polynesian archipelagos south of the equator; and a US one in the smaller islands of Micronesia strung between Hawaii and Guam north of the equator.
It is hard to argue that the region has done very well from this arrangement. Thanks to their geographic isolation and minuscule populations, Pacific states do far worse than small island countries elsewhere in the world.
Outside Fiji, tourism is rudimentary. To this day, most goods exports consist of fish, coconut and pearls. The offshore financial centers that helped make Mauritius and many Caribbean countries relatively wealthy were stamped out in the Pacific before they became established. Income levels, when adjusted for the relatively high cost of living, are on a par with sub-Saharan Africa.
What the Pacific nations lack in terms of economic strength, however, they make up for with one 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.
That bloc, in theory, has greater voting power than the 27 nations of the EU, or the 22 non-island states in the Americas, helping secure committee appointments and diplomatic wins for its allies. Melanesian countries such as the Solomon Islands, moreover, are less than 2,000km from Australia’s coast, making a Chinese military presence there a worry for Canberra.
Island governments have a long history of trading diplomacy for development assistance. Four of the 14 states that recognize Taiwan instead of China are in the Pacific; three others have in the past switched allegiance between Taipei and Beijing, making the most of the geopolitical competition between the powers.
Their willingness to entertain more substantial overtures from Beijing is a sign that these nations are growing more assertive, said Sarina Theys, a lecturer in diplomacy at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.
“They’re realizing they have more power than they initially thought,” she said. “They’re becoming more vocal and claiming their place on the global stage.”
In that sense, China’s growing interest is seen locally not so much as a threat, but as an opportunity to gain leverage with the traditional major powers on the periphery of the Pacific. Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong’s (黃英賢) first act after coming to power 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 into Australia is also promised by Wong’s government.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March appointed a former US ambassador in Malaysia to oversee a renewal of pacts expiring over the next two years with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia — three nations that are closely aligned with the US through migration and development agreements.
In per-capita terms, the larger Pacific powers have been extraordinarily generous in aid and development assistance over the years. It is not clear, though, whether Beijing’s promises of investment will happen, or be effective if they do. The experience of countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, left with debt burdens and under-utilized infrastructure, suggests a policy of caution.
China also is not an obviously better actor on the single biggest issue for island governments — global warming and its threats to the viability of some of the more low-lying states.
“Climate change is an existential challenge in the region,” Theys said. “It’s the most important security threat the Pacific island states have.”
Still, a more competitive diplomatic space in the Pacific is very much in the interests of the region, even if it annoys neighbors who have grown comfortable with the status quo.
In entertaining but ultimately rejecting the 10-nation security pact proposed by Wang, island governments have shown that they are growing skilled at the traditional statecraft of minor powers — playing larger nations off each other.
Major powers need to pay more attention to the Pacific in their future dealings. For island governments, that is not a bad thing.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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