Japan Struggles to Maintain Pacific Influence as China's Might Grows

Japan is hosting a two-day summit of presidents and prime ministers of Pacific island states. The Pacific islands hold strategic attraction for many regional powers.

Japan says the aim of its fourth Pacific Island Forum Summit is to enhance sustainable development and security in the region. But, behind the scenes, there is growing competition for influence with the 14 nations that are small and remote, but hold strategic appeal to major powers.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman has hinted this is causing some concern in Tokyo.

"[The] Pacific island area should not be toyed around [with] by any strong power surrounding the area," he said.

The main strong power is China, which hosted its own Pacific islands summit in Fiji recently. China sees potential military and diplomatic value in the islands.

Analyst Peter Wagner of Hawaii's East-West Center on policy studies says Beijing's diplomatic agenda is closely linked to its rivalry with Taiwan.

"Taiwan wants to be recognized at the U.N. China is determined not to let that happen," he said.

The Pacific islands are home to only one percent of the world's population, but, together, they control six percent of the votes in the U.N. General Assembly.

Taiwan, which has been ruled separately since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, has used its economic might to win diplomatic recognition from a few dozen small and poor nations, including, for example, the Solomon Islands. China wants to roll back all diplomatic recognition for Taiwan, which it sees as a renegade province.

But, beyond this issue, China's growing military is looking to extend its sphere of influence.

And these Pacific micro-states have geographical importance for any powerful navy. They comprise thousands of mostly uninhabited islands, spread over 30 million square kilometers, covering a quarter of the Earth's surface.

The U.S. military is also concerned over China's rising diplomatic and military influence in the Pacific.

"We watch all the militaries in the region very closely," said Lieutenant General Bruce Wright, the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan. "We have seen - and the report just came out of the Pentagon - an increased modernization of Chinese military forces, and, certainly, we have seen some growth in the funding of Chinese military forces."

East Asia expert Kent Calder, with Johns Hopkins University in the United States, says the world may be about to witness a new version of the so-called Great Game, when the British Empire competed with Imperial Russia in the 19th century.

He sees China, with submarine-launched ballistic missiles, known as SLBMs, moving from a defensive posture, known as brown water, to project its military into the blue water of the mid-Pacific and Indian Oceans.

"We do indeed have a Great Game that extends far beyond the region," he said. "From a strategic point of view, over time, as China's SLBM program  expands, or its navy moves beyond brown water to something greater, relations with the Pacific islands will be [increasingly] important."

An official of the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, who did not want to be named, told VOA that such concerns are unfounded. He says reports of China planning a deep-water navy are rumors being spread by the U.S. and Indian militaries.

Some experts suggest China is just looking to fill a gap created by Japan and the United States, which have been cutting back aid to the Pacific Islands.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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