China's Growing Influence Reshapes South Pacific
An idyllic region a heart of geostrategic tensions
By: Jerome Lizambard
Back in 2012, Henry Puna, then the prime minister of the Pacific nation of Cook Islands, visited the University of South Pacific in Fiji and he laid out his vision for the region. His address talked about ‘reimagining the Pacific,’ changing the perception of the ocean nations from tiny islands to “large ocean island states”, and laying the ground for strong regional cooperation.
He probably didn’t imagine that nine years later, his own election as head of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) — the main regional political arena — would bring about its demise, with five countries leaving in protest. At the same time, the co-chairman of the university where he delivered his address was being expelled by Fijian authorities in a controversial move. With that, two of the major Pacific institutions, symbols of the regional solidarity created in the postcolonial era, were shaken to their core.
The rupture, in February, was ostensibly caused by dissent over the vote for the position of secretary general of the PIF. But in fact the catalyst was the emergence of China as a strong and disruptive actor in an area where Beijing has no territory, only distant cultural links through its diaspora but newly developed strategic and economic interests, challenging the traditional powers in the region, which are Australia, the US, and in a softer way, New Zealand and France.
A visit to the Pacific islands is an exhilarating experience, filled with breathtaking views of secluded beaches and turquoise waters, lush jungles and colorful markets but also of brand new stadiums or oversized government buildings, courtesy of China, or in some cases, Taiwan. And for a long time, Chinese influence in this part of the world was limited to these emblematic projects dictated by the two countries’ rivalry and their check book diplomacy.
The Chinese diaspora, although present for centuries, was focused on trade and stayed away from politics. But this started to change in 2006 when the Chinese premier visited the region, followed eight years later by President Xi Jinping making the trip to Fiji.
Since then, China’s outreach in the region has accelerated and its objectives now go way beyond poaching Taiwan’s last diplomatic allies. In 2012, China counted only one research institute focused on Pacific studies. Since then, six more have opened in various Chinese universities, driven by Beijing’s growing interested in the region. A new diaspora has followed suit in search of business opportunities, mostly from the Guangdong region. On the aid and investment side, in 2018 China had become the third largest aid donor country in the region in an unprecedented push, through concessional loans for most part.
Only Australia and New Zealand, the two regional powers, were still more generous, according to data compiled by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. Multiple projects, for some under the umbrella of China’s emblematic Belt and Roads Initiative, have sprung around the region, from roads in Vanuatu to fisheries in Fiji or Papua New Guinea, creating jobs and opening up undeveloped parts of these countries. On the diplomatic front, Beijing has also been very active, launching new cooperation forums to back its ambitions. And it did not go unnoticed in Canberra, London, Washington or Paris, the formal colonial powers.
The UK, France and Germany won the lion’s share of territory by the end of the century while Australia and New Zealand stepped in during the World War I, taking control of Germany’s colonies. The region was also a major operational theatre during World War II, by the end of which the US gained administration over many of islands captured from Japan.
But China’s push in the region has known multiple setbacks. In 2006, anti-Chinese riots devastated parts of Honiara and Nuku’Alofa, the capitals of Solomon Islands and Tonga, followed by similar events in Papua New Guinea in 2009. The takeover of the wholesale and retail sector by a newly arrived and unscrupulous Chinese diaspora, poorly integrated and often disrespectful of customary land or Christianity, two pillars of local culture, had fueled the resentment. Similar tensions were reported in Samoa and Vanuatu.
In the face of such difficulties, why is China dedicating so much time and energy to get influence in the region? Altogether, these nations represent barely 0.3 percent of world GDP and a total population of 11 million people, going down to 2.3 million when excluding Papua New Guinea, the only sizable country.
Adding to it the existential threat represented by global warming and raising sea levels, with some countries such as Kiribati or Tuvalu expected to completely disappear or become inhabitable before the end of the century according to UN reports, the Pacific nations appear as an unlikely geostrategic grand prize.
But in terms of resources, it means probably the richest waters for fisheries, where 55 percent of all tuna are caught today. A resource eight of these countries have managed to protect successfully for the past 40 years through the Nauru Agreement. And a resource of much interest for China, the country with the world’s largest, and poorly regulated, distant fishing fleet with 17,000 vessels according to the London-based Overseas Development Institute. Besides the legal operations conducted out of the fisheries China built in Fiji, multiple incidents in the region have involved Chinese fishing boats operating illegally in the territorial waters of Palau or Vanuatu, among others, depleting resources and affecting badly local populations.
In terms of strategic importance, the area is certainly less critical to China than the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean and their trade routes. Nevertheless, its scale and location, at the crossroads between China and two of its main rivals, Australia and the US, makes it highly valuable. From Japan down to New Guinea, the area includes the US territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas and the countries of Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia associated to Washington by a Compact of Free Association heavy on defense. They form a critical obstacle to China’s ambition to reunite with Taiwan, by force if need be, and to project power out in the open seas. For Australia, a Chinese presence in what Canberra regards as its strategic backwaters would be a clear red line underscored in every defense white paper.
China’s various investments, via aggressive lending, have also raised concerns in the islands and Western capitals in a region largely relying on aid and heavily indebted. “Debt-trap diplomacy,” which depicts China as using its Belt and Road investments with predatory intent to seize sovereign assets or exert political pressure on countries unable to pay back their loans, has been flagged.
Studies have exposed since the flaws of this theory in the Pacific as elsewhere. Still, by holding 12 percent of the total debt of the Pacific nations, up to 50 percent in Tonga’s case, China has emerged as a major financier for the region—and a potentially problematic one, given the opacity of its operations.
These developments also had considerable influence over local politics, shaking traditional systems based on clan chiefs, family alliances and church connections. The most pro-China of these countries, Fiji, which adopted an authoritarian turn more than a decade ago, has since engaged in a power struggle with Australia and New Zealand, and enjoyed China’s unconditional support.
That is illustrated by a corruption scandal at the University of South Pacific, a long-standing symbol of Pacific regionalism located in Fiji but mostly financed by Australia and New Zealand. Its Australian chairman, having authored a report alleging important irregularities, got expelled from the country by Fijian authorities in an unprecedented move, while Samoa offered to move the university to its territory.
The question the Pacific Nations now face is whether they will be able to leverage to their advantage the unprecedented attention and resources world powers are dedicating to their region in their geostrategic power struggle, or stay marginalized and divided pawns pushed around by giants.
The challenge is huge for such small countries, only recently decolonized for many and with limited experience on the world stage, at a time where every loan, grant or infrastructure project is likely to come with strings attached. During the cold war, the Caribbean nations became a dangerous arena of confrontation between the US and USSR, particularly around Cuba, Grenada or Nicaragua, and not exactly to their benefit. Only time will tell if the Pacific island nations will play the same role in the 21st century’s new titans’ fight between China and the US.
Jerome Lizambard is a master’s candidate at the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong. Asia Sentinel has a publishing agreement with the center.