China’s Pacific Ambitions Hit a Pothole
Island nations turn backs on Beijing’s promises of largesse
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
China’s plan to expand its influence into the South Pacific, in the wake of last month’s signing of a security pact with the Solomon Islands that alarmed pro-western allies, has been blunted amid islanders’ fears that Beijing is seeking to be too much of a big brother. Australia, suddenly aware of the Chinese threat in its own backyard, has played a major role in wooing back the islanders.
Beijing’s cardinal objective is to displace and counteract the US as the dominant regional player and blunt US's ability to tilt the regional balance of power, as evident from the Washington-engineered AUKUS (Australia, UK, and US).
But great power competition is a bumpy road with many possible – apparent and hidden – potholes. China, to the relief of the US and its allies, especially Australia, has hit one in the South Pacific that is seen as an opportunity for China’s rivals to build on with a view to rolling China further back.
While China’s deal with the Solomons was regarded as a response to AUKUS, Beijing’s ambitions have hit a major pothole, as at least 10 different Pacific island nations have refused to sign the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision with Beijing, which apparently has come with a price tag that seemed to strip these nations of their sovereignty in terms of their ability to shape their politics and policies.
David Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, wrote a “revealing” letter, on May 20, 2022, to at least 18 Pacific nations warning them of how “disingenuous” the deal was. According to the letter, the reason to oppose the pact is that China seeks “to acquire access and… control of our region, with the result being the fracturing of regional peace, security, and stability and Chines control of traditional and non-traditional security of our islands, including through law enforcement training, supplying, and joint enforcement efforts, which can be used for the protection of Chinese assets and citizens.”
The fact that most of the nations that this letter was written to have now refused to sign the deal means that Panuelo is far from an exceptional case. Anti-China sentiment, or at least a sheer reluctance to give in to China, is widespread, showing Beijing its striking limits.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi joined Panuelo in criticizing Beijing for violating, or completely ignoring, the Pacific Islands Forum as the proper platform for engaging the region for a multilateral deal.
While most Pacific nations have bilateral ties with Beijing, the refusal to allow wide-ranging influence across a range of issues – law enforcement cooperation, joint combat against transnational crime, and establishing a dialogue mechanism on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation – reflects the region’s collective anxiety with regards to what can be considered hegemonic ambitions that range from shaping the target countries’ foreign policies to domestic politics and development goals.
It shows the limits of China’s narrative of ‘win-win.’ Besides offering wide-ranging ‘cooperation’ in the said areas, Beijing also offered to double bilateral trade volume by 2025 compared with 2018, a target that was to be achieved through a free trade area between Beijing and the Pacific nations. As the rejection shows, China’s trade offers were not preferred over issues that could compromise these states’ own power.
In this context, the states seem to be aware of how Chinese investments elsewhere – especially, through the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – have failed to generate the promised growth. On the contrary, these investments have turned into Chinese strings to pull to extract desired political and geopolitical interests with no direct benefits for these countries, let alone a ‘win-win’ for the people.
More than two dozen Chinese companies operating in Pakistan and producing and supplying electric power have refused to supply electricity unless paid Rs300 billion up front, for instance. This has exacerbated Pakistan’s precarious energy situation, causing major power cuts across the country and putting the newly installed Sharif government in a tricky situation.
Pakistan is far from the only example of China’s failed ‘win-win’, as I wrote previously for Asia Sentinel. The growing stockpile of failures is a lesson that is no longer hidden, nor difficult to understand for states around the world, including the Pacific islands states.
China’s rival states in the Pacific – especially, Australia – have mobilized their resources to make sure that the consequences of engaging with China are properly relayed to these states. This was the key factor in Australia’s new foreign minister Penny Wong’s hyperactive visit to the Pacific island nations.
In her address to the Pacific Forum, Wong specifically emphasized Australia’s resolve to treat “Pacific priorities and institutions” with respect and that Australia’s engagement does not come with strings, adding that “we will listen and we will hear you – your ideas about how we can face our shared challenges and achieve our shared aspirations together.”
This so-called ‘string-less’ politics is being supplemented by the US’ newly announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an economic component of US engagement with a region that it has been trying to pivot to since the Obama administration.
Although this framework does not include Pacific islands, there is no denying that an increasing US presence in the Pacific comes very specifically as a direct counterweight to China, which means an additional option for these states to diversify their economic policies in ways that leave minimum room for China to maneuver, expand and unilaterally dominate the region.
On the contrary, China’s failure to expand its influence is an opportunity for the US and its allies to build on and expand their influence. Wong’s visit signified precisely that.