As China marks the 10th anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the BRI, many are assessing the impact of its global push to promote connectivity and billions of dollars in deals for infrastructure projects. In the Pacific, Beijing’s BRI has set off a race of great power competition with the United States and other countries. Analysts say so far, of the more than 30 projects in the region that China has launched, the results have been mixed, with some serving as "showpieces" instead of contributing to Pacific countries’ development or economic needs.
"The BRI in the Pacific is more of a political instrument than a genuine development mechanism," Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands program at Lowy Institute in Australia, told VOA in an interview. "In Australia, a lot of commentators view BRI projects as a vanguard for the Chinese government to build influence in the Pacific."
In the run up to the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that’ll take place in China this month, with more than 130 countries reportedly expected to attend, Chinese state media have published a series of reports highlighting the BRI’s success stories in the Pacific.
Last month, in two separate articles, China’s state-run tabloid, the Global Times, highlighted how "the BRI vision is becoming a reality" in the Pacific Islands noting how China is providing medical services and professional training to local healthcare personnel in the Solomon Islands and how Beijing has helped the country to build a sports stadium for the upcoming Pacific Games.
In another report, the Global Times stated that China’s cooperation with Pacific Island countries over the last 10 years focused on areas "such as humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and training. Most of the cooperation is reflected in infrastructure construction, tourism promotion and economic as well as trade issues under the BRI framework."
But where Beijing sees progress and success, western think tanks and Pacific experts say the facts on the ground paint a different picture.
In the 2023 Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment released earlier this year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based security think tank, found that BRI has had minimal impact on Pacific Island countries that receive Chinese loans or grants.
According to the report, as of the end of 2021, 26 out of 33 projects were completed, but there has been little shift on investment or trade. Last month, China officially handed over the main stadium that it helped the Solomon Islands build for the upcoming Pacific Games to authorities in Honiara, making it the latest addition to the list of completed BRI projects in the Pacific region.
"Exports from China to the South Pacific have increased twelvefold in value between 2000 and 2018, though the numbers for exports from Pacific Island countries to China have grown at a much less impressive rate," the study said. "Further major Chinese investment in the form of large-scale physical-infrastructure projects is unlikely given the existing debt burdens and the lack of demand for Chinese loans."
Some experts in the Pacific tell VOA that realities in some Pacific countries also contradict China’s success stories. Sandra Tarte, an associate professor in international relations at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, said some Chinese investments in Fiji have resulted in big towers that were half-built and unfinished for a long period of time.
Some tourism projects that were supposed to be supported by China received initial fanfare but never got off the ground. "There was an influx of investment from China at some point in Fiji, but the investors ran out of money," she said. "A lot of things like that have happened here."
Power plays in the Pacific
To counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific, major Pacific powers such as the U.S., Australia, and Japan have dedicated more resources and efforts to re-engage with Pacific Island countries.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted a two-day summit with Pacific leaders in Washington, pledging to help countries in the region combat climate change and improve infrastructure with a $200 million package.
Since May, the U.S. has signed defense cooperation and maritime agreements with Papua New Guinea and opened an expanded mission in the Pacific region as part of the efforts to compete for influence with Beijing.
Apart from the U.S., Australia and Japan have both announced development packages to Pacific Island countries in recent months, with some of the support dedicated to deepening defense and security ties.
Sora from the Lowy Institute says China’s push into the security space in the Pacific over the last few years, including the security pact that Beijing signed with the Solomon Islands in 2022, has raised concerns among democratic countries in the region.
"Traditional partners like the U.S., Australia, Japan, and New Zealand have activated as quickly as they can to improve the quality of their relationship with the Pacific and to improve their offerings," he told VOA.
"Countries like the U.S. and Australia are trying to reassert the regional security order and make that contribution to international security but also look for ways to improve the economic prosperity of Pacific Island countries," Sora explained.
Pacific countries’ collective voice
However, western countries’ attempts to sign bilateral security agreements with Pacific countries have faced pushback in recent months. A proposed security treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea has been delayed for several months due to ongoing domestic debate in Papua New Guinea. In addition, Vanuatu’s new Prime Minister Sato Kilman said in early September that the country needs to rethink its security agreement with Australia.
To prevent their interests from being overshadowed by competition between China and the U.S., some analysts say Pacific Island nations have sought to project their collective priorities through multilateral institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the United Nations.
"Pacific Island countries will continue to demand that partners strike a balance between development and security assistance, as well as embrace their definition of security, which includes climate change," Parker Novak, a nonresident fellow at Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told VOA in a written response.
Other analysts say one way for countries in the region to assert their vision is to promote the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, a development initiative created by Pacific Island countries.
Tarte from Fiji’s University of the South Pacific says that approach could be a way to "reframe the debate" and avoid being dragged into the competing initiatives of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the BRI.