Growing aid, trade, and diplomatic outreach and rumored interest in securing bases heighten worries about China’s expanding footprint in the Pacific. But while Pacific island states are not naïve to growing great power competition, they do not necessarily share the same level of concerns as those held by Oceania’s longstanding powers. Some even welcome China’s arrival as a way to compel traditional Pacific powers to recommit to the region. Besides, while Beijing certainly wants to increase its influence in the Blue Continent, the attitudes of longstanding powers, especially in relation to climate change, provide greater push for island countries to accommodate new suitors.
China’s Pacific outreach is on a roll. From 2011 to 2019, China provided $1.47 billion in concessional loans to Pacific island states. If it pays up to its pledges, it may overtake Australia to become the region’s top donor. Last month, the Third China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum was held in Apia, Samoa attended by Vice Premier Hu Chunhua. In the same month, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing. Xi also met former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in Beijing. In September, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, a timely meeting given increasingly frayed bilateral ties.
Also in September, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati both switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Of the 15 remaining diplomatic allies of Taiwan, four are in the Pacific, highlighting the region’s priority for Beijing’s foreign policy.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also elicited incipient high-level Pacific participation. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama attended the first Belt and Road Forum in 2017, while Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill attended the second one last April. The Joint Communique of the second Belt and Road Forum mentioned an interest to work with the Pacific Islands Forum, where China has been a dialogue partner since 1990.
Though minuscule in land area, the strategic location, vastness, and marine resources of Pacific island countries made them the object of interest of bigger powers. From the 16th to the 20th centuries, Spain, Germany, Great Britain, France, Japan, and the United States took part in the scramble for the Pacific and to this day some islands remain as overseas territories of these great powers. Crucial battles of World War II took place in the Pacific theater, including the Battles of the Coral Sea, Midway and Iwo Jima. Britain, France, and the United States conducted nuclear tests on the islands.
With the Pacific islands being no stranger to great power contest, China’s growing presence in the vast blue continent does not constitute a first order challenge for regional countries. Instead, the existential threat posed by climate change and rising sea level alarms them more. Addressing these and pursuing sustainable economic development are high on the region’s agenda. Concerns over the environmental commitments of longstanding Pacific powers are encouraging regional countries to open up to new partners. China, while far from being an epitome of climate change action, remains committed to multilateral efforts to curb emissions. In contrast, the United States’ retreat from the Paris Climate Accord and Australia’s preservation of its coal industry and emissions targets, not to mention the condescending manner in which these were pursued in an annual Pacific summit, unsettle their position in the Pacific.
In early November, Pacific Islands Forum Chair Prime Minister Kausea Natano of Tuvalu said that America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement undermined its influence and credibility in the Pacific. Australia’s intransigence, on the other hand, alienated it from Pacific island states and almost led to the nonissuance of a joint communique during the 50th Pacific Islands Forum at Tuvalu last August. The resulting manifesto was considered a watered-down version omitting any mention of coal and strict compliance to emissions target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Pacific leaders point out that while Australia is protecting its industry, they are after survival, with rising seawater inundating many low-lying atoll nations. Australia and the United States are the world’s largest and fourth largest exporters of coal, respectively, exposing the cleavage where domestic and global priorities clash. While distant China is no poster boy for climate change advocacy, regional leaders may have rightfully expected greater sympathy from fellow member, longtime donor, and closer neighbor Australia.
With its notorious environmental record, China’s overtures to Pacific island states will thus be equally constrained by its climate change policies. But there are silver linings. While China is the world’s largest emitter, the developing country is also the world’s largest producer of renewable energy. Chinese funding for off-grid solar systems, wind farms, and ocean wave energy can provide sustainable sources of energy for regional countries. In addition, China’s progress in achieving its sustainable development goals, particularly in the areas of poverty alleviation, education, and health, can offer valuable lessons for regional countries. During the French president’s visit early this month to Beijing and Shanghai, Emmanuel Macron and Xi reiterated their support to the Paris climate agreement. This is a critical and timely commitment coming from a resident Pacific power and an increasingly influential new player.
If China wants to have a maritime spur in the Pacific, it has to green the Belt and Road. But continued investments in fossil fuels, notably coal power plants, raise questions about its advertisement.
Nonetheless, China’s Pacific foray, while creating a lot of ripples, is also fraught with challenges. Its distant fishing fleets are charged with unsustainable fishing, a full accounting of the environmental impact of its infrastructure investments in fragile island ecosystems is yet to be made, and there are worries about debt sustainability for small Pacific island state borrowers. Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and the impertinence of some Chinese diplomatic officials also estrange Beijing’s ties with regional countries as the fracas of the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru showed. America’s Compact of Free Association with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau will check Beijing’s advance in the central Pacific. Finally, its reported desire to establish bases in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu raises security worries of resident powers. All these suggest that Beijing’s journey to the world’s largest ocean will be far from pacific.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is an Asia analyst following security and connectivity issues and Southeast Asia’s interaction with major powers. He is presently pursuing his MA in International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C.