The U.S.-China Competition Comes to the Pacific Islands

The U.S.-China Competition Comes to the Pacific Islands
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in a joint press conference with Fiji’s acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Nadi, Fiji, Feb. 12, 2022 (AP photo by Kevin Lamarque).
With the first visit in four decades by a U.S. secretary of state to Fiji and plans to open an embassy in the Solomon Islands reportedly in the works, Washington officially announced its “return” to the Pacific Islands this past weekend. “It is about building a free and open Indo-Pacific, defending it with democratic institutions, with transparency, with commitment to a rules-based order that we share,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a joint press conference with Acting Fijian Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum on Feb. 12. Blinken spoke after a virtual meeting with 18 Pacific Island leaders meant to reassure them of Washington’s commitment to the region. “This is a strategy for the long term because we see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific. It’s as simple and basic as that,” Blinken added. The day before Blinken’s visit, the White House unveiled its new Indo-Pacific strategy document spelling out the calculations informing the Biden administration’s heightened interest in the broader region. “This intensifying American focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the People’s Republic of China,” the document explains. “The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific,” it added, citing examples including Beijing’s economic pressure campaign against Australia and its “bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas.” The Pacific Islands, in particular, have become a major battleground for the two rivals’ competition, due to their strategic value to both countries. In the past decade, Beijing has made significant inroads into the Pacific Islands through a combination of high-level diplomatic engagement, bilateral economic partnerships and infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. While China’s development assistance may have peaked in 2016 and declined steadily since then, its loans and grants accounted for 8 percent of all foreign aid to the region between 2011 and 2017, dwarfing that of the U.S., which stood at a paltry 0.3 percent during the same period, according to data from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. And while their economies are relatively small, the Pacific Island nations nonetheless hold outsized military and diplomatic value to China, which has successfully leveraged its economic leverage and geographical proximity in the service of its geopolitical goals. In 2019, China convinced two of the six island nations—Kiribati and the Solomon Islands—that previously had formal ties with Taiwan to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The two diplomatic flips, which took place within a week of each other, cut the number of Taiwan’s international allies from 17 to 15. And given their location along Washington’s island defense chain in the Pacific, establishing a military base on one of the islands could allow China to cordon off U.S. military forces in the region in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, as retired Adm. Peter Cowell, a former Australian naval officer and chair of the IntSAR Admiralty Board, explained in a recent webinar.

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The strategic importance of the Pacific Islands is partly why some Chinese-funded infrastructure projects have set off alarm bells in Canberra, including a 2020 agreement with Papua New Guinea to build a $146 million fishing facility on Australia’s doorstep. Some other Pacific Island nations have also become more cautious about deepening their partnerships with China, due to wariness of the political strings that come attached and concerns over so-called “debt-trap diplomacy.” But while Washington’s stepped-up engagement is seen in the region as a welcome development, the intensifying geopolitical rivalry can be a double-edged sword for the island nations, especially when they are pressured to take sides. “For Pacific Island elites, the presence of China gives them more scope to hedge with the U.S. and other traditional powers, and leverage better deals in terms of aid and investment,” Graeme Smith, a research fellow at the Australian National University, told World Politics Review. This includes the construction of undersea communication cables and upgrades of port infrastructure. “But in other fields, such as choices of technology, they could face binary choices, which will be harder to navigate,” he added, pointing as an example to the choice between China’s Beidou satellite positioning system and the U.S.-operated Global Positioning System, or GPS. The island nations could also expect to feel pressure to formally switch their diplomatic recognition to Beijing, take steps to further isolate Taiwan and support Beijing’s position on controversial issues, including the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The lobbying campaign could also extend to international fora like the United Nations, where Beijing would expect those countries to lend their support on key issues that relate to China’s core interests. For those that are economically dependent on China, such as the Solomon Islands, it would be difficult to push back against Beijing’s influence, Smith added. The geopolitical competition has also served to weaken democracy in many Pacific Island countries, including Fiji, Biman Prasad, the leader of Fiji’s opposition National Federation party, told World Politics Review. China, for instance, stepped in to lend support to Fiji’s military junta after a 2006 coup that was widely condemned by the international community, including a round of sanctions imposed on the interim military government by New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. Though other major powers have stepped up their engagement with countries like Fiji in an effort to counterbalance China’s influence, Prasad noted that “traditional democratic country donors have tended to ignore practices of good democracy, such as media freedom, human rights, transparency and accountability.” A more equitable partnership, some Pacific observers argue, should be centered on the needs and interests of the people of the islands themselves, which neither Beijing nor Washington has been willing to do so far. “The U.S. has still to establish a deep and nuanced understanding of the region as an entity in itself, rather than as a subset of the ‘Indo-Pacific,’” Tess Newton Cain, the project leader of the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, told World Politics Review. “The leaders of the Pacific have made it clear for quite some time that they do not see themselves or wish to be seen as pawns on a geostrategic chessboard,” she added. “Neither do they see their countries or their societies as prizes to be fought over.” As Amatlain Elizabeth Kabua, the Marshall Islands’ U.N. ambassador, said in a speech last year about the high-level attention paid to the region by major powers in recent years, “We are concerned about being caught in the middle of a bad tug-of-war.” “While we welcome the engagement,” she continued, “we have motivation to distinguish between someone who is interested in building a durable partnership to help us grow as a people and as a nation, which we welcome and encourage, or someone who is interested in our area just for their own expansion.”

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