China’s Growing Influence in the South Pacific

4 mins read

Earlier this year, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) went on a regional tour in the South Pacific hoping to secure a multilateral trade and security deal with the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia. Although Wang Yi (王毅) was unable to seal the grand deal, numerous bilateral agreements were signed between China and the island nations, and the tour is yet another example of China signalling its growing ambitions in this part of the world. 

Map of the South Pacific. Source: SPC

China’s influence in the South Pacific has gradually increased during the last few years, and has unfolded amid wavering engagement from the US and Australia – the region’s long-serving allies. China is currently cooperating with the Pacific Islands on a range of issues, including trade, pandemic response and infrastructure development. One reason why these countries are welcoming Chinese infrastructure projects is because Beijing has proven to be a very reliable actor when it comes to quickly building infrastructure. In 2013 China launched The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (一带一路) which aims to support, fund and build essential infrastructure abroad. BRI has enabled China to assume a leading role in global infrastructure development. The project has been praised for boosting trade but also criticised for causing debt-traps.   

Economically, it makes sense for China’s leadership to invest in the South Pacific. Most of these island nations are small with lower middle-income economies, meaning fairly modest investments can go a long way. China is at the same time able to secure the supply of crucial resources in return for these investments. In 2019, 90% of all wood exported from the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG) was shipped to China. In the same year, China was also a major recipient of PNG’s mineral, oil and metal exports. For years, Beijing has been trying to gain greater access to the region’s large fishing stock, and was surely overjoyed when Kiribati announced it would reopen one of the world’s largest marine protected areas for commercial fishing: The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). The reopening of PIPA has been heavily criticised by the country’s former president Anote Tong because of the threat it poses to environmental conservation, and there have been concerns that China influenced the decision-making process. 

Beyond Cash and Resources

The Chinese Naval Infantry. Credit: Lance Corporal J.J. Harper

There are signs indicating that Beijing’s newfound interest in the South Pacific is about more than just reaping economic benefits. Last year, China and PNG reached a deal that allows China to provide financial and technical support for the construction of the Ihu Special Economic Zone. This zone will contain an industrial park, but also a military base and a naval port. Allowing Chinese technology to partake in the construction of military infrastructure raises concerns about potential Chinese influence in PNG’s military affairs. Similarly, worries have been raised over talks between China and Kiribati regarding the restoration of an old airstrip on Kanton Island. The Kiribati government has claimed that the airstrip will solely be used for civilian purposes. But there are fears it could have dual application, both civilian and military, and that the latter one is the true intention of the project. China has previously militarised civilian infrastructure, not least on its artificial islands in the South China Sea, during which Beijing used similar rhetoric as is currently being used by Kiribati’s government. 

Fears over Beijing’s military ambitions were further sparked in April this year when China and the Solomon Islands sealed a security agreement. This is the first security pact between China and any of the Pacific Islands and signifies a historical shift in Sino-Pacific relations. According to a leaked draft of the agreement posted by Dr. Anna Powles at Massey University on twitter, Chinese ships are now permitted to make stopovers on the Solomon Islands and Chinese security forces can be deployed in order to assist Honiara in maintaining social order. The agreement has created great unease among Solomon Islanders as it could undermine the nation’s sovereignty and lead to democratic backsliding. In addition, many Solomon Islanders, including officials within the government, were not made aware that a security deal with China was being discussed. A report by a US intelligence officer suggests that China has been discussing a similar deal with Kiribati. Taking all these security developments into account, it seems that China’s engagement is also about establishing a military foothold in the region. Since the South Pacific is located between Asia and the Americas, it has significant geostrategic value as an outpost for trade and military activities. Increased Chinese military presence in the region would therefore enable Beijing to control important trade routes and supply chains, and furthermore to roll back American influence in the South Pacific.  

Allowing Chinese technology to partake in the construction of military infrastructure raises concerns about potential Chinese influence in PNG’s military affairs.

There are also hints suggesting that China’s presence in the South Pacific is about obtaining political support in key areas. For instance, economic incentives are being used by Beijing as a lever to make countries abide to the one China principle, causing Taiwan to become more isolated on the world stage. In 2019 both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. China was later accused of attempting to bribe MPs of the Solomon Islands and of offering development funding in order to gain support for the switch. On top of that, the Chinese leadership has acquired more support from the South Pacific within the realm of the UN. The Chinese Communist Party has for years been accused of committing human rights violations against the Uyghur population in the country’s western province of Xinjiang. On the 31st of August this year, the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report confirming these accusations. Prior to the release of the report, a joint statement signed by 69 countries including Kiribati, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu was delivered to members of the UN’s  Human Rights Council. The signatory countries unanimously claimed that Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong were related to China’s internal affairs and opposed the “politicisation of human rights and interference in China’s internal affairs”. Beijing is thus receiving more backing on its policy in Xinjiang and on its perspective on human rights, which in turn is challenging existing norms and concepts. 

The South Pacific’s long-serving allies have recently started to counter Beijing’s influence. Both the US and Australia have pledged to substantially increase financial aid to the region. At the same time, it is highly probable that Beijing will continue its engagement, causing the South Pacific to morph into another area of power struggle between China and the West.

Lukas Petersson has a master’s degree in political science from Stockholm University. He is very interested in international affairs, especially with regards to China. In his spare time Lukas enjoys playing football and badminton.

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