WASHINGTON DC - A decade ago, then-US president Barack Obama billed himself as the “first Pacific president” and announced, several years later, a foreign-policy “pivot to Asia.”
But the pivot proved largely illusory, and the region only grows more complex. The growing challenges faced by Pacific island countries requires significant reassessment as the region becomes one of the tensest political battlegrounds in the world.
A growing battle of diplomatic and economic statecraft is playing out on remote islands.
China is acutely aware that the fledgling democracies of the Pacific are prone to short-sightedness—and in some cases outright corruption—and, as a result, are at risk of manipulation that goes against their best interests.
That lays the groundwork for Chinese expansionism, initially economically, with the long-term goal of a military presence to rival that of the United States. The Solomon Islands derecognising Taiwan is only the latest victory for Beijing.
China’s ambition to become the regional leader in the Pacific is pursued through the use of both diplomatic and economic statecraft, with the longer-term goal of military expansionism in the Pacific.
Within hours of his appointment as US ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse described China’s spending in the Pacific as akin to “payday loan diplomacy.” Otherwise reported as “debt-trap diplomacy,” this strategy sees vulnerable countries targeted with unsustainable debts with the intention of generating political leverage.
Calculating Chinese contributions in the Pacific is difficult, as China does not engage with the similar transparency and accountability mechanisms followed by other major donors.
China’s diplomatic statecraft has taken leaps and bounds over the past decade. Beijing has become increasingly adept at working within and massaging international institutions to support and legitimise its actions.
China’s growing skill at statecraft extends to Pacific affairs. Recently, China exploited a rift between Australia and Fiji on climate change policy after the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August 2019.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang referred to Australia’s behaviour as akin to a “condescending master” and “insulting” to climate-vulnerable nations.
Geng went on to accuse Australia of spreading “the China threat fallacy among island countries” and claimed—falsely—that Chinese engagement comes “with no political strings attached.”
The comments were widely reported in Australia and across the Pacific, allowing China to point toward tangible tensions and in turn damage the Australian government’s stature as the primary ally of the Pacific island countries.
China’s use of development aid in the Pacific, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative, has been raising concerns.
Analysts, including from the Lowy Institute, have spoken out on the scale of Chinese lending and the capability of Pacific nations to effectively scrutinise the financial sustainability of the debt they’re assuming through partnering with China on infrastructure projects.
A commonly cited example is the construction of a national conference centre in Vanuatu. Completed and handed over by China in 2016, it is now a monument to poor lending and construction processes.
Prime Minister Charlot Salwai of Vanuatu said in early 2019 that the government is no longer able to maintain the building, which is incurring significant costs due to the absence of actual conferences.
The aforementioned Lowy Institute report states that several island countries in the Pacific, particularly Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu, are already significantly indebted to China.
The growing influence and presence of China in the Pacific have laid the foundations for China to lean on the island countries to meet its longer-term ambition of establishing a military base in the region.
Such a base would likely be constructed out of a continued expansion of newly built or pre-existing facilities that can serve multiple purposes. The Chinese-built wharf on Espiritu Santo island in Vanuatu is one such example—built for commercial cruise ships, the wharf also has the capacity to service naval vessels. It was built in close proximity to Vanuatu’s international airport, which China is assisting in upgrading.
China views a base in the Pacific as an imperative if it is to establish a greater regional presence outside of the highly contested South China Sea. It would be the second such base for the Peoples Liberation Army after the establishment of the Djibouti base in 2017.
While Vanuatu is frequently identified as the most likely candidate where China could establish a permanent military presence, other Pacific states such as Tonga have also been mentioned.
Though Australia is the largest provider of development assistance in the Pacific, a nation of 25 million people is unable to tackle Chinese foreign influence alone.
Developing a shared reliance on a network of military allies in the region would aid the Pacific—but this should be extended further.
The Pacific needs greater harmonisation in rhetoric as well as cooperation in the delivery of both aid and infrastructure projects.
Likeminded states must work together to counter influence in the region that often fails to work in the best interest of the Pacific island countries. It is unlikely that tensions will subside in the short to medium term—rather they will continue to test the fragile democracies of the Pacific.
Philip Citowicki was an advisor to former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and is a former political aide to Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom