U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s decision to attend the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands this week signals the growing strategic importance of the South Pacific. Clinton’s attendance may also be a response to China’s increasing presence in the region. The consequences of China’s advance in Australia’s immediate neighborhood are most significant for Canberra, which is facing a situation where it may, for the first time in more than 70 years, find itself in a position where a nation in its own backyard has interests not necessarily aligned with its own.
China has been active in the South Pacific for four decades, mostly driven by its competition with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition. Although a truce (of sorts) has held for the last few years, China and Taiwan have engaged in “checkbook diplomacy” to curry favor with South Pacific states. While this competition remains important, China now appears to have strategic interests in demonstrating its ability to project global power via its increasing influence in the region. And, regardless of their small size, each independent South Pacific state has a vote in international organizations, which China can seek to persuade them to use in pursuit of its interests.
China’s efforts to penetrate the South Pacific were given a boost after Australia and New Zealand attempted to isolate the Fijian regime following the 2006 coup there. The Fijian regime responded by explicitly adopting a “look north” policy that included forging closer ties with China, which other regional states have since followed. After Australia and New Zealand supported Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, the Fijian regime focused its attention on the Melanesian Spearhead Group, from which Australia and New Zealand are excluded. China seized this opportunity to gain influence, sponsoring the creation of the Group’s Secretariat, and building its headquarters in Vanuatu.
China’s most significant strategic interest in the South Pacific is military access, the most important aspect of which is signals intelligence monitoring. For example, China built a satellite tracking station in Kiribati in 1997, although it was subsequently dismantled after Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. The Chinese fishing fleet operating out of Fiji is also said to provide cover for signals intelligence monitoring, particularly of U.S. bases in Micronesia. China is also seeking naval access to the region’s ports and exclusive economic zones, engages in military assistance programs, and is negotiating access to facilities for maintenance and resupply purposes.
Australian’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, has said that, “China’s increased presence in the Pacific is fundamentally welcomed by Australia.” However, China’s growing military presence may pose several risks to Australia. As China becomes a more assertive international actor it could respond militarily if members of the Chinese diaspora are threatened, as they were during the riots in Solomon Islands and Tonga in 2006 (PDF). Questions then arise about what would happen if Australia also responded to such an eventuality: would the Chinese and Australians cooperate? Or could the situation lead to a stand-off?
The most serious risk is that Australia’s near neighbors could come to owe allegiance to a power with interests that do not necessarily align with those of Australia. Indeed, the 2009 Defense White Paper noted that Australia has a strategic interest in ensuring that Indonesia and South Pacific states “are not a source of threat to Australia, and that no major military power that could challenge our control of the air and sea approaches to Australia, has access to bases in our neighborhood from which to project force against us.” Given the extensive nature of Chinese involvement, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine such a scenario. The vulnerability of Australia to a major power establishing a foothold in the region was graphically illustrated during World War II, when the Japanese managed to penetrate as far as Papua New Guinea.
Australia (often in cooperation with New Zealand and the United States) has belatedly responded to China’s increased presence in the South Pacific. Australia has increased its diplomacy in the region, on top of its already extensive aid, military, policing, and governance assistance. Most positively, Australia announced in July that it is restoring full diplomatic relations with Fiji, and easing sanctions it imposed on the military regime. Given the strategic issues at stake, it is vital that Australia continues to devote its energies to this issue in similarly positive ways.
Joanne Wallis is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, where she also convenes the Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Security program. This piece first appeared on The Strategist: The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Blog.