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China’s End Game for South Pacific and Why it Matters Now

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Kiribati President and Foreign Minister Taneti Maamau, right, meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tarawa, Kiribati, May 27, 2022.
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Kiribati President and Foreign Minister Taneti Maamau, right, meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tarawa, Kiribati, May 27, 2022.

China is trying to win deals in the South Pacific this week and roll back traditional Western influence, experts say, as the foreign minister continues a 10-day visit to the region.

Analysts say the quest for deals shows in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s travels to the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. He wraps up his tour on Saturday. China signed a security pact with the Solomons in April.

Wang fell short of signing a pan-Pacific accord earlier in the week but has reached agreements with individual countries, including this week in Tonga for disaster management, among other projects. Wang reached Vanuatu on Wednesday.

Beijing had already built up its navy over the past few years to sail past the north-south chain of islands between Japan and Indonesia. The tropical South Pacific lies just beyond that chain.

“For relatively modest attention, resources (and) effort, something could fall into their lap, like the Solomons, for example,” said Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center research organization in Honolulu. He said China is ready for “great power competition” with Western countries that have historic but sometimes fragile political influence in the South Pacific.

“Forget talking about ‘competition’s coming,’” he said. “Competition’s here. It’s there.”

Vying with the West

China is seeking a long-term source of seafood for its population of 1.4 billion people, along with a way to disrupt U.S. and Australian dominance in the South Pacific, said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the U.S.-based RAND Corporation, a research organization. The South Pacific extends from Australia to Peru.

Beijing failed to get an agreement Monday for its plan to have 10 Pacific nations endorse a deal covering matters from security to fisheries as some governments held back, media reports from Fiji said. The president of the Federated States of Micronesia had warned fellow South Pacific leaders that a deal with China would raise geopolitical tensions.

Wang has made other pledges during his trip.

In Fiji this week, Wang said China was willing to merge its $4 trillion-plus Belt and Road Initiative with the South Pacific nation's 20-year national development plan and carry out a technology cooperation project, the official Xinhua News Agency in Beijing reported on Monday. The Belt and Road Initiative, which goes back nine years, builds infrastructure in dozens of countries to expand trade routes linked with China.

Similarly in Kiribati last week, Wang made a Belt and Road pledge, Xinhua reported Friday. The report said China agreed to give “full play to Kiribati's advantages in resources and create new highlights in maritime cooperation.”

Wang has further offered pandemic recovery aid to some of the South Pacific nations. He said recently that China would “continue to promote the comprehensive and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement” on climate change, in the face of rising sea levels that threaten Oceania’s flatter islands.

Both the Solomons and Kiribati, in 2019, switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, an informal friend of the West, to China.

Some media reports suggest that Chinese vessels may get rights to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area near Kiribati.

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau said in November he would lift a fishing ban in place since 2015 over the 408,250-square-kilometer tract, which UNESCO describes as “the largest designated Marine Protected Area in the world.”

China had sought a dual-use port facility in Vanuatu as well but rejected the idea after the media found out, the Washington-based research group Brookings Institution said in a 2020 study.

Chinese influence is there “to stay,” said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, associate Pacific Islands studies professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa.

In the Solomons, he said, “There are those who are really pro-China, and their views are often that the relationship with the West has not changed development in the Solomon Islands and therefore China represents an alternative.”

U.S. weapons testing in the South Pacific shook people’s sense of security in some island countries because of forced relocations in the 20th century, he said.

US, allies push back

In March, Washington began renegotiating deals with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. The Department of State said then that “completing the negotiations is a priority for this Administration.”

Australia, Japan and the United States expressed fears in April that the Sino-Solomons deal would usher in the deployment of Chinese military forces in the South Pacific.

China feels the geopolitical pressure. “Wang said the United States and its allies are bent on containing the development of China,” Xinhua said May 27. “In essence, they do not want to see the success of a non-Western force as well as strengthened solidarity and cooperation between the developing countries.”

The naval branch of China’s People’s Liberation Army is no longer “constrained” by islands in East Asia, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

“The time is ripe for the PRC (Peoples Republic of China) to move into the Pacific as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have in recent years switched their Chinese diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, while Washington’s negotiations to renew its compacts of free association with the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau are thought to not be moving as quickly and as well as they could be,” King said.

Officials in Beijing are thinking 20 to 30 years ahead, Limaye said. He said Chinese infrastructure projects and evolving ties with local leaders would eventually break up the Australia-U.S. influence. Chinese educational scholarships for islanders and any support against rising sea levels would make strong a impression if Western influence fails to keep pace, he added.