Geopolitics in the 2023 Pacific Games 

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Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

Geopolitics in the 2023 Pacific Games 

The 2023 Games, hosted by Solomon Islands, underscore China’s growing role in the Pacific Island countries.

Geopolitics in the 2023 Pacific Games 

A delegation from Solomon Islands’ prime minister’s office tour the construction site of the main stadium for the Pacific Games, a project undertaken by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, Mar. 21, 2023.

Credit: Solomon Islands Prime Minister’s Press Secretariat

China’s rise as a global power has led to its increased assertiveness and influence on the international stage. China’s economic muscle has allowed it to position itself as a potential challenger to the superpower status of the ​United States. This is particularly evident in the ​Pacific Island countries, where China’s economic growth and diplomatic initiatives have created both opportunities and challenges. 

Chinese companies have invested in the region, particularly in industries like resource extraction, bringing fresh opportunities for economic development. However, these investments also come with challenges. Chinese investors often struggle to meet the labor and environmental standards of the countries they operate in, posing problems for sustainable development. 

Solomon Islands, with its 992 islands, experienced these ups and downs in development after switching diplomatic ties from ​Taiwan to China in 2019.

The competition for diplomatic recognition between China and Taiwan has been a driving force behind their aid programs in the region. Solomon Islands initially established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1983, receiving a significant portion of their aid budget through various programs. However, over the years, there were flirtations with shifting diplomatic recognition to China, culminating in the 2019 switch. 

The significance of this shift was highlighted by the 2023 Pacific Games, a major sporting event that will bring together 5,000 athletes from 24 countries. The 2023 iteration will open on November 19 in Honiara, the capital city of Solomon Islands.

Until 2019, Solomon Islands was one of the few countries that recognized Taiwan as an independent nation. In 2017, Taiwan and Solomon Islands signed a bilateral agreement for the construction of the main stadium for the games. 

However, after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare took office in 2019 Solomon Islands reversed their longstanding diplomatic policy and recognized Beijing instead. 

China has since taken on the development of seven sports facilities for the 2023 Pacific Games. The main stadium, which will host various sporting events, including swimming, tennis, and hockey, is considered the centerpiece of the project. The Chinese government has emphasized that this aid is a gift without any political strings attached. China’s bankrolling of the stadium, construction of the athlete’s village, and other Pacific Games projects represents the biggest China aid project in the Pacific region, according to Chinese Ambassador Li Ming.

All told, China is believed to be fronting around half of the Pacific Games’ total cost, estimated at $220 million (1.85 billion Solomon Island dollars). That would mean China has contributed roughly $110 million to the effort.

The 2023 Pacific Games can be interpreted as an exemplification of China’s growing presence in the Pacific, driven by its pursuit of diplomatic support and strategic advantages. China’s use of soft power diplomacy and its long-term security concerns contribute to its engagement with the Pacific region and the efforts to reshape power dynamics in its favor.

However, the lack of consultation and transparent decision-making processes surrounding Solomon Islands’ switch from Taiwan to China, coupled with the nature of ​China’s aid provision, has emerged as a significant source of frustration throughout the country. Initially, Chinese workers took the lead in constructing the stadium, which rankled. A significant portion of the population relies on day labor due to inadequate access to skills training; the opportunity to work steadily on a major construction project could be life-changing for Solomon Islanders. 

Following demands from the public, local workers were later included in the project. While this move has created employment opportunities for many islanders, it did not end complaints. In an interview with the New York Times, workers spoke of earning a mere $1.20 per hour, contrary to promises of additional compensation for food and transportation expenses that never materialized.

In addition, the stadium’s mere existence poses a financial burden for a nation like Solomon Islands, which has a local income economy and a GDP of $1.62 billion in 2021. The maintenance costs for the stadium are expected to be high after the games conclude. To address this issue, plans are underway to establish a national authority responsible for the stadium’s future maintenance. However, skepticism exists among the population, as previous attempts to create similar authorities have been perceived as ineffective.

Residents have also expressed their discontent over the perceived undermining of democracy by both Sogavare and Chinese officials. The prime minister’s decision to accumulate debt, characterized as unsustainable by the World Bank, has further fueled dissatisfaction.

Solomon Islands has faced economic difficulties, including a declining economy and the prolonged delay of infrastructure projects. These issues have led to accusations that the government is neglecting foreign policy interests and interfering in matters concerning the well-being of its citizens. Opposition parties allege that the government intentionally delayed parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for this year, as a strategic move. The government countered this claim by citing the exorbitant costs associated with hosting the games, saying it could not do both.

Within Solomon Islands, the province of Malaita, which boasts the highest population, most staunchly opposes Chinese influence. It perceives Beijing’s approach as a debt-trap policy, pointing to similar cases in Sri Lanka and Zambia, where countries faced economic challenges and struggled to repay loans provided by China. Tensions between Malaita and the island of Guadalcanal, which hosts the  capital, are longstanding, with Sogavare’s switch to recognize China only exacerbating these differences. 

In February, Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani, a vocal critic of the Sogavare government, especially its ties to China, was forced out of office in what he alleged was a power play by the prime minister.

The ​2023 Pacific Games can be regarded as a manifestation of ​China’s expanding influence in the region, serving as both an example and an objective of its strategic presence. 

China’s engagement in the Pacific is driven by a competition for diplomatic recognition and strategic interests. Specifically, China seeks to peel away the Pacific Island nations that still recognize Taiwan, aligning with its foreign policy of endorsing Beijing’s authority over Taipei. Prior to 2019, six out of the 17 countries recognizing Taiwan diplomatically were located in the Pacific region, namely ​Kiribati, ​Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. However, China’s successful shift of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands into its sphere of influence reflects its diplomatic accomplishments. This achievement can be attributed, in part, to China’s adept employment of soft power diplomacy.

China recognizes the long-term security significance of the Pacific Islands. These islands hold particular importance to China’s People’s Liberation Army, especially the navy, as they are considered key elements in breaking the “island chain” theory. The island chain refers to a network of military bases located on islands surrounding China and across the Pacific, which China perceives as a means for the United States and its allies to encircle and contain its influence. 

​Solomon Islands emerged as a significant battleground during World War II, with the battles fought in ​Guadalcanal playing a pivotal role in safeguarding Australia from ​the Japanese invasion. This phase of the war marked a turning point toward eventual victory for the Allied forces in the Pacific theatre. Consequently, Solomon Islands became entrenched within the ​Western sphere of influence, with Australia assuming the role of primary security guarantor in the region.  

However, recent developments have raised concerns over growing Chinese influence within Solomon Islands. Since the switch in diplomatic recognition, Honiara inked a controversial security agreement that could allow China to deploy forces to Solomon Islands. 

This proved to be a wake-up call, prompting the ​United States and its regional allies, including Australia, to re-engage with the Pacific and take measures to counterbalance this influence. As a demonstration of its commitment, the United States Navy plans to deploy its hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, for the Pacific Games in November 2023. Additionally, the U.S. has reopened its ​embassy in Honiara, which had been closed since 1993. 

Japan, in collaboration with other countries, is involved in rebuilding the road leading to the Solomon Islands’ airport. Notably, this road passes by an expansive sports stadium being constructed by ​China. Adjacent to the stadium, ​Indonesia is actively contributing to the development of a Futsal (friendship) hall.

The underlying objective behind these recent developments by various countries in Solomon Islands is to increase their influence and secure crucial maritime lanes. Australia, in particular, views the strategic position of the island as a matter of great concern. Given its proximity to Australia, any establishment of a surveillance base by China in Solomon Islands could pose a threat to ​Australia’s maritime seaboard. Furthermore, such a development could enable the monitoring of military base activities, including the planned future nuclear-powered submarine base. 

Moreover, Solomon Islands occupies a central location along a key ​shipping route, with ships heading to major ports in ​Busan, ​Hong Kong, Jakarta, ​Kaohsiung, ​Yokohama, and ​Singapore passing through this region. Consequently, China’s increasing control in the area poses a potential threat to this vital supply chain.

The presence of competing great powers allows a state to expand its maneuvering space by diversifying its engagement by engaging with multiple great powers. The Solomon Islands’ government policy of veering away from the West by inching closer toward China should be seen as a diversifying endeavor on the part of Honiara to reduce its dependence on the West and to leverage maximum benefits from both sides. Similar behavior is evident in the strategic alignment of most Global South countries, which do not want to become a permanent part of any alliances and want to retain their strategic autonomy by adopting an ambiguous aligning nature. This explanation also holds true for Solomon Islands.