China and the South Pacific Island Region
Dragon’s Growing Interests and Engagements
China, which has emerged as a potential hegemonic power not only regionally but also globally, has ambitions to dominate the Pacific region particularly the South Pacific Islands. The country’s economic and trade interests, political engagements and diplomatic aspirations in this region have translated into international competition between China and the United States. Politically, China aspires to reinforce political ties in the region while, economically, it has a desire to explore the economic potentials of the region through trade, development, investment and aid.
China’s growing influence in the region is based on the following principles:
a. Facilitating the recipient countries to build their self-development capacity;
b. respecting the political and territorial sovereignty of the beneficiary countries;
c. observing equality and mutuality;
d. promotion of regionalism; making consistent reform; and
China’s growing engagements in the region are evident from the fact that it has become its major donor and trade partner since 2009. China has adopted a “no-strings-attached” approach and has invested here in various forms, e.g. infrastructural development, public facilities (roads, bridges, dams, schools), foreign aid and other forms of investment – according to statistics, Chinese construction activity in the region was around $958 million in 2017.
On the other hand, South Pacific Island countries have also preferred Chinese investment to that from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) countries owing to flexible conditions attached by the former. Western donor countries are more focused on structural reforms – political, social and governance-based. Chinese policy, on the other hand, is more focused on the development and capacity-building. Thus, China has achieved positive policy responses from the countries in the region. Although the Chinese aid is relatively smaller than that provided by the US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, China has adopted a gradual pace in order to penetrate deeply. According to Lowy Institute, China has provided $1.5 billion in aid to the South Pacific Island region. As of 2017, China was the third-largest donor to the countries in this part of the world, contributing around eight percent of all foreign aid and grants. Moreover, due to its non-interference policy, the countries of the region have shown trust in China.
China has become the largest trade partner of this region as well. The countries which have reaped benefits include Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Fiji. China has become a significant export market for the island economies. Between 2003 and 2015, Chinese enterprises invested more than $700 million in the region. Papua New Guinea has become the largest recipient of a $313 million investment. Similarly, Samoa received $265 million and Fiji received $111 million. Solomon Island’s 45 percent exports go to China. Similarly, China is the largest market for Papua New Guinea’s timber exports. Also, Ramu Nickel Project in Papua New Guinea – worth $1.4 billion – is the largest Chinese project in the region. In Tahiti (French Polynesia), China has started construction of a fish farm “Hao Fish farm project” that would produce 50,000 tonnes of fish a year. Chinese trade increased by $9.04 billion and investment reached $884 billion in 2020.
In diplomatic sphere, China enjoys formal relationships with the Island countries including Federated States of Micronesia, Niue, Cook Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa and Fiji. Furthermore, China has also engaged with the region via regional multilateral institutions such as Pacific Island Forum (PIF), Melanesia Spearhead Group (MSG). In September 2019, both Solomon Islands, the third most populous Pacific nation — and Kiribati, switched their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. China also hosted a conference in Samoa in 2020 to increase its diplomatic clout. China also tried to expand its cultural influence in the region. For example, China has established the Confucius Institute at the University of South Pacific in Fiji. It also arranged many cultural sessions in these countries to promote the Chinese language.
Chinese diaspora also expanded in this region with, legal and illegal, migrants. They enjoy economic influence in the region. Many Chinese immigrants are involved in business activities, such as in Fiji, French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea. French Polynesia’s ten percent population is of Chinese origin.
The increasing Chinese influence here has triggered a sense of fear and alienation in the United States. The relations between the two countries are at the lowest ebb over disputes ranging from political, economic and commercial. The US-China rivalry in the Pacific region has also sucked other US allies – Australia, New Zealand, Australia, and Taiwan – onto this strategic chessboard. The US has mobilized Taiwan and Australia to counter Chinese influence in the South Pacific Island region. The US and its allies are investing heavily in development projects of the island nations here to counter the growing Chinese dominance. The Bipartisan Caucus in the US Congress has presented a draft to boost US supremacy in the region. The Blue Pacific Act, if passed, will allow investing $1 billion for increasing maritime interests along with socio-economic development in the Island countries. Also, the US is looking forward to renegotiating The Compacts of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia. Previously, the compacts facilitated development assistance to mentioned countries in place of giving access to waters, land and airspace to the US. Recently, in February 2022, the US has announced to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands which it had closed in 1993. This is a strategic move of the Biden administration to build partnerships with Pacific island nations to counter the Chinese ambitions.
Strategic and diverse policy initiatives of China in the South Pacific Islands have increased its economic, diplomatic and cultural clout. This steady pace would provide it with greater space to assert itself as a global and regional hegemon. China is working with the intention of an accommodationist approach, unlike its Western counterparts. It has successfully provided development opportunities to regional islands. The increasing bonds of China have ignited and exacerbated strategic and economic rivalry with the US.
The writer is an MPhil Scholar. She can be reached at: Iqrarz2009@live.com