China eyes South Pacific islands

Hong Kong: As China seeks to increase its clout, and woo friends by every possible means, it has accelerated diplomatic and economic activities in the Pacific region.

Interestingly, just 2.3 million people live in the Pacific islands. Six nations- Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu- have diplomatic ties with Taiwan rather than with China, which makes them a prime target for Beijing to woo away.
Conversely, the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu all recognise China diplomatically.

Concern in the countries like Australia, New Zealand and the USA rose into when the Sydney Morning Herald broke a story on April 09 about Beijing’s plans to build a permanent naval base in Vanuatu.

The article asserted that China and Vanuatu had “preliminary discussions”, though “no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu’s government” and the plan “would likely be realised incrementally, possibly beginning with an access agreement that would allow Chinese naval ships to dock routinely and be serviced, refueled and restocked.” In other words, details were sketchy and alleged talks were at a very early stage.

Foreign Minister of Vanuatu, Ralph Regenvanu, responded, “No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort. We are a non-aligned country. We are not interested in militarization; we are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country.” Similarly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the allegation of a military base was “completely out of line with the facts”.

However, there is a concern in Vanuatu itself about the prospect of selling itself out. Vanuatu’s opposition leader, Ishmael Kalsakau, said, “Our economy is stagnant, we’re just blindly accepting the intervention of countries like China who come in with their generosity, but we’ve got to know what’s in store for them at the end of all of this.”

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said, “More generally, the militarization of the Pacific is something we’ve been seriously concerned about as there are certain things that are not good for the long-term peace and security of the Pacific, or for democracy itself.”
Whether or not Vanuatu and China were negotiating access for Chinese navy ships, perhaps the greatest benefit of that story was that the Australian and New Zealand governments are doubly on their guard against Chinese intrusion. They must also be more keenly attuned to the needs of Pacific island nations.

Of course, the Indian Ocean has far more strategic importance to China than does the South Pacific. However, there are advantages to spreading infrastructure wherever China can. The obvious concern if China establishes a military base in the South Pacific is that it would be on Australia’s and New Zealand’s doorsteps, giving China a solid foothold. Such a location outflanks the USA, Australia and Japan and the so-called First and Second Island Chains that geographically conspire to hem China in.

Certainly, an unfriendly power in the area would inhibit Australian freedom of movement and place in doubt the security of Australia’s supply of military equipment and other strategic materials from the USA. Indeed, China could position forces “behind” Guam and it could monitor and patrol the South Pacific. China’s bases in the South China Sea already give it a foothold from which to stretch into the Pacific Ocean. It can land H-6K bombers and refuel them from these bases, for example.

The permanent presence of Chinese ships, intelligence-collecting facilities and other assets deep in the Pacific would certainly upset the strategic balance in the region, and would be a huge setback for Australasian diplomacy. Instability in any of these islands could result in China sending in troops on the pretext of protecting its own citizens. Regardless, while such a facility would make a useful peacetime base, it probably would not help much in a time of conflict given its remoteness and any chance of reinforcement.

Clearly, however, China is increasingly exerting influence in the Pacific as it is everywhere else through initiatives like One Belt, One Road (OBOR). Beijing’s greatest interests in the South Pacific at the moment are fisheries resources and making money from investment projects where Western companies are less likely to sense profits.

For instance, Chinese money funded a 300m wharf on the northern island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, purportedly for cruise ships. It is close to an international airport also being upgraded by China. China is also funding a new residence for Vanuatu’s prime minister, the Ministry of Finance building and an extension to the Foreign Ministry building. Also, the telecom giant Huawei created an island-connecting communications network.

There is now more awareness of the debt trap that poorer countries often end up with in regards to Chinese-funded developments. Nevertheless, half of Vanuatu’s foreign debt is already owed to China, which allows Beijing to exert leverage. China has also ingratiated itself with many local officials through money and largesse. Illustrating the influence that China does have over Vanuatu, the island recognizes China’s exaggerated claims to the South China Sea.

Captain James Fanell, a former US Navy intelligence officer, noted, “Across the vast expanse of Oceania, China’s deepening economic and political relationships have paved the way for port leases and maritime construction efforts that serve the PRC’s global power projection vision, and threaten free nations’ security interests. It is making a power play for this resource-rich, strategically crucial region, from the continent of Australia to the least-populated island nations.”

Fanell said China predictably starts with financial aid, political donations and investment. This paves the way for commercial inroads and an increase in Chinese migration. After co-opting government officials, invariably a military-related objective emerges. This may include efforts to block US military plans, for instance.

A US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report released in June stated that Beijing has significantly bolstered its economic ties in Oceania over the past five years. Its engagement is driven by “it’s broader diplomatic and strategic interests, reducing Taiwan’s international space and gaining access to raw materials and natural resources”.
The report added, “If Chinese activities deter the US from carrying out its military training and exercise] plans for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, it will contribute to China’s goal of weakening US military presence in the Indo-Pacific.”

China is leapfrogging the First Island Chain and making inroads into various Pacific island nations. Indeed, it is outdoing the USA in many areas. For example, in Saipan in the Northern Marianas, China offered to build a casino in 2014, and its tourists are now the most numerous visitors on the islands. Another Chinese-funded casino resort is being offered for Tinian. Companies are also reportedly buying up real estate and businesses on Guam, which hosts key American military bases.

The Federated States of Micronesia have enjoyed Chinese investment and dalliances. A US diplomat lamented, “China has blanketed Micronesia at every level with all-expense paid trips that include daily emoluments.” Despite concern about debt traps, many in Micronesia have a favourable impression of China, creating societal divisions where there is a strong constituency pushing Chinese interests. This is despite the USA outspending China 20:1.
Half of Palau’s tourists were coming from China, but the country has pressurized Palau by cutting off the stream of visitors since late 2017, leaving hotels empty and businesses struggling. This is none other than weaponised tourism. China has thus firmly embedded itself in the heart of US influence and defence in that part of the Pacific. Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute likened it to “encircling the encirclers”.

Australia has been very active in resisting China. Canberra stepped in to thwart a 2016 deal between the Solomon Islands and Chinese company Huawei to create a 4,000km-long undersea high-speed internet cable. The head of Australia’s intelligence agency sensed the danger in China building this cable, and diplomatic pressure was exerted to prevent it from proceeding. Indeed, Australia offered to build it for half the cost and threatened that no Australian landing point would be permissible if Huawei went ahead.

The then foreign minister Julie Bishop commented, “We put up an alternative, and that’s what I believe Australia should continue to do. We are the largest aid donor in the Pacific. We are a longstanding partner of Solomon Islands, and I want to ensure that countries in the Pacific have alternatives, that they don’t only have one option and no others….”
Australia also recently successfully blocked China from funding plans to turn the Black Rock Camp in Nadi into a regional training facility for police and peacekeeping soldiers. Instead, Canberra will fund efforts to turn the camp into a regional training hub for South Pacific militaries.

Captain Eroni Duaibe, the Fiji Military Forces’ chief staff officer for coordination, said, “Let me put it this way: the development of Black Rock has been backlogged for quite some time now due to financial restraints. China had had an interest in that for quite a while but it seems that I would say, I think Australia played their cards right in terms of tabling a holistic offer.”

China was able to take advantage of souring relations between Australia and Fiji after the latter experienced a military coup in 2006. China has supplied a surveillance/ hydrographic vessel to Fiji, as well as 50 police vehicles in 2017.

French Polynesia is under China’s gaze as well. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is concerned too, with plans to open new high commissions in Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa by next May.

Since 2011, Chinese investment in the Pacific islands has reached USD5.9 billion, according to the Lowy Institute. This compares to USD6.72 billion from Australia, the region’s largest investor, primarily through aid grants. Conversely, China provides only 32% of its money through grants, the remainder being interest-bearing commercial loans.

These Pacific island nations have small populations, but they sell citizenship and passports. Many Chinese are taking up this opportunity, and there is an influx of workers and citizens. For example, there are plans to build two Chinese cities able to accommodate 10,000-20,000 people in Vanuatu.

Toata Molea, a researcher in the Solomon Islands, warned, “They own everything. My fear is that in the next ten years, this place will be taken over by the Chinese.” This is perhaps an example of neocolonialism, the use of “capitalism, globalism and cultural imperialism to exert influence and ultimately control over a country”.

Beijing has tried to throw its weight around at annual Pacific Islands Forums, but this has rubbed many up the wrong way. For example, on 6 September, the Chinese delegate Du Qiwen stormed out of a meeting after he was not permitted to address the session. Referring to Du, Nauru President Baron Waqa said, “The Chinese demanded to be heard when (Tuvalu’s) prime minister was about to speak. He insisted and was very insolent about it, and created a big fuss and held up the meeting of leaders for a good number of minutes when he was only an official. So maybe because he was from a big country he wanted to bully us.”

At the same forum, US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke promised spending of USD7 million on military financing for Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, plus another USD750,000 annually for international military exercises in the region.

The USA had to capture the Pacific islands one by one against the Japanese in World War II in a bloody island-hopping campaign. To some extent, China is bloodlessly achieving the same today through largesse and money.

Incidentally, President Xi Jinping is planning a summit for regional leaders in Papua New Guinea in November, right before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. President Donald Trump will be absent from the APEC meeting, whereas Xi will be there, showing perhaps why China is being so successful in its efforts.