Major and emerging powers forge partnerships with South Pacific nations to curb Chinese influence
Pacific maneuvers by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have sent shockwaves to major and emerging powers in and out of the region. The PRC has moved with haste in recent months to secure economic and defense ties with Australasian, Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian nations. The PRC communist government’s intensifying interest in the Pacific has prompted other strategic partners in the region — including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and the United States — to collaborate more creatively and present themselves as more favorable economic and defense partners than the PRC.
“We share the belief that good investments stem from transparency, open competition, sustainability, adhering to robust global standards, employing the local workforce and avoiding unsustainable debt burdens,” then-Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in July 2018, according to Agence France-Presse. Her remarks came during an announcement for a trilateral partnership among Australia, Japan and the U.S. to “mobilize investment in projects that drive economic growth, create opportunities and foster a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
China has solidified itself as the second biggest aid donor in the South Pacific, having committed to more than U.S. $6 billion in projects across the region since 2011, according to Financial Times newspaper. Australia remains the largest donor, having committed U.S. $6.72 billion between 2011 and 2018 and spending U.S. $5.58 billion, Financial Times reported. New Zealand, the U.S. and Japan are the third, fourth and fifth largest donors, respectively, the newspaper said.
Competition for influence in this immense maritime territory — which includes Australia, New Zealand, the island nations of the South Pacific, and territories of the United States, France and the United Kingdom — often appears to be a contest between the PRC versus everybody else.
Leaders of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and United States confirmed in early 2018 their intent to increase economic contacts with Pacific nations to draw them away from the PRC. The leaders say there is still time to counter China’s inroads in the region because none of the Pacific nations has conceded to the PRC’s promises.
Intelligence analysts in Australia say the South Pacific now represents the greatest strategic threat to Australia based on intelligence that suggests the PRC intends to establish a military base in the region, The Australian newspaper reported in September 2018.
News arose in April 2018 that the PRC had informally approached Vanuatu to establish a naval military presence on the tiny island. Both Vanuatu and the PRC denied such talks occurred or such plans existed. Australian intelligence suggests otherwise, and experts offered opinions about why it could become a likely scenario.
Across the South Pacific, the PRC has evacuated hundreds of Chinese nationals from areas within the Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Tonga, the online news magazine The Diplomat reported in April 2018. These evacuations occurred because of attacks on businesses owned by Chinese nationals and diaspora.
“It is not hard to envisage that incidents like this could easily grow in size and intensity as China’s presence in the South Pacific grows,” David Brewster, a senior research fellow with the National Security College, Australian National University, wrote in The Diplomat in April 2018. “These imperatives, and others, may give China reason to seek secure access to local facilities in the event of a crisis. Just as Australia has kept a close eye on its citizens in Fiji during past crises in that country, China might even potentially feel impelled to provide on-ground security where local governments are unable to do so.”
While a PRC military base in Vanuatu remains shrouded in denials, Australia and the U.S. confirmed plans to upgrade military infrastructure at a Manus Island base in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and establish a joint naval base there, The Australian reported in September 2018.
Adm. Mike Rogers, former U.S. National Security Agency director and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, called the base a “win-win” for Australia and PNG.
“If you look at PNG and other places that have really interesting resources — it’s not by coincidence you are seeing more of the Chinese,” Rogers said, according to The Australian, adding that the PRC was “clearly trying to create relationships that generate advantage for them. I’m not trying to argue it is inherently evil, but on the other hand, it’s a conscious strategy. Nobody should think this is just being done on a whim or, ‘Oh, I wonder why they are interested in — pick the island — in Oceania today?’ There is a reason, guys, it’s not by chance.”
Australia’s defense spending across the South Pacific for 2018 totaled U.S. $120 million and is increasing, The Australian reported.
“The Pacific is a very high-priority area of strategic national security interest,” said Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne.
INDIA’S GROWING INFLUENCE
India has emerged in recent years as the fastest-growing major economy in the world and is projected to grow faster than China over the next decade. While the bulk of India’s small but growing foreign aid goes to its immediate neighbors in southern Asia and the Indian Ocean, India’s aid diplomacy has extended to small states of the South Pacific, especially Fiji. Roughly 38 percent of the population of Fiji are Indo-Fijians, descendants of Indian contract workers brought to the islands by the British in the 19th century.
India has long adopted an Act East policy that encourages engagement with its neighbors to the east. Leaders there recently worked with a New Zealand consortium to develop key areas in economics, trade, diplomacy, security, governance and social development.
As a rising power and one that is increasingly engaged regionally and abroad, India is keen on engaging in the South Pacific, said Rani D. Mullen, visiting fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.
“This is not a new engagement, especially with the long-standing history of 100-plus years and the diaspora in the Pacific,” she said. “This new thinking has led it to engage more with Pacific island countries through soft power. The engagement is largely training, education and cultural engagement.”
Mullen’s message to South Pacific nations looking for investors is that diversity with other markets is a good thing; but beware of the strings attached.
“India is the new great game and in rivalry with China. It’s important for countries to look at the kind of investments that China proposes and the repayment rates and high interest rates. Those are important to keep in mind, Tonga for example,” Mullen said. When China started building harbors and ports close to India — in Burma, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, close to the border — “India was taken by surprise. India wants to establish good working relationships that might lead to better economic engagement. That has been part of the driver more recently for engagement with the South Pacific.”
Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor at the Centre for International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, called the shifting dynamics across the Indo-Pacific a “wake-up call” for India.
“We are facing challenges as a consequence of China’s rise,” Rajagopalan said. “There is potential for peaceful or tense, conflictual world foreign policy.”
JAPAN’S PACIFIC STRATEGY
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked to advance Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. He went a step further recently by unveiling a capacity-building program for Pacific island nations aimed at maritime order.
Abe hosted the 8th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) in May 2018, where he pledged a greater focus on maritime order based on the rule of law. Count this among Japan’s ongoing contributions to curb Chinese influence in the South Pacific.
During a PALM meeting in 2015, Japan announced U.S. $460 million in assistance to South Pacific nations, The Diplomat reported.
In May 2018, the PALM was held with Prime Minster Abe and Prime Minister Tuilaepa of Samoa as co-chairs. Japan declared its intention to commit more deeply to the stability and prosperity of the region based on the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” and the Pacific island nations shared the importance of the basic principles of the strategy and welcomed the strengthening of Japan’s commitment in the Pacific region under the strategy. Abe pledged a greater focus on maritime order based on the rule of law.
That same month, construction began on a Japanese-funded Pacific Climate Change Center in Samoa.
The PALM convenes every three years, allowing Abe a chance to gather representatives from Pacific Islands Forum members to enhance relationships.
“Since ancient times, it is the Pacific Ocean that has given us blessings of the sea. And it is the rule of law that gives protection to the nations, big and small, for their inherent rights,” Abe said during the May 2018 PALM. “Japan will be unstinting in its assistance towards improving countries’ capacity to protect the sea, including each country’s legal enforcement capabilities.”
Abe told his Pacific island partners that Japan would develop quality infrastructure in both “hard and soft aspects” to assist in self-reliant prosperity and sustainability. Japan will also enhance its people-to-people exchanges to “cultivate leaders who will shoulder the future of the PALM nations,” Abe said.
The next PALM meeting will take place in 2021.
HEARTS AND MINDS
Partnerships in the South Pacific come in myriad combinations. The heavyweight trilateral of the Australia, Japan and the United States have pledged to continue working together and forging other strategic relationships, as a counterweight to the PRC.
“This trilateral partnership is in recognition that more support is needed to enhance peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” then-Australian Foreign Minister Bishop said, Stars and Stripes newspaper reported in August 2018.
Paul Buchanan, an American security analyst based in Auckland, told Stars and Stripes he had already seen a boost in funding implemented due to the PRC’s growing imprint in the South Pacific.
That imprint, according to Buchanan, includes a new Chinese embassy in Tonga that will serve as a signals intelligence base close to underwater data cables and a new surveillance and hydrographic ship given to the Fiji Navy by the PRC. (Other reports said China had provided Fijian police with training and vehicles, the newspaper reported.)
A growing chorus of analysts say that the need for infrastructure spending in the Pacific is imperative. “This [trilateral partnership] is about competition for hearts and minds in the region and the world and to pretend otherwise is silly,” Brad Glosserman, visiting professor at Tokyo’s Tama University, told Stars and Stripes.
Like other analysts, he also refuted the notion that the PRC’s South Pacific projects have been successful. “A lot of these projects aren’t working,” Glosserman said. “The idea that this is an extraordinary success for the Chinese isn’t real.”
Solomon Islands’ forests chopped fast to feed China demand
The South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands is chopping down its tropical forests at nearly 20 times a sustainable rate, according to research by an environmental group published in October 2018, driven by insatiable Chinese demand for its lumber.
Export volumes of the archipelago’s single largest export commodity leapt more than 20 percent to just over 3 million cubic meters in 2017, central bank figures show, worth U.S. $378 million.
Environmental and rights group Global Witness said this was more than 19 times higher than sustainable levels, and if continued could denude the country and soon exhaust the single biggest contributor to the Solomons’ economic growth.
Deforestation also removes wild fruits and vegetables that are a local food source and destroys the habitats of animals.
Global Witness’ analysis of import data also found that the overwhelming majority of the lumber was sent to China, the world’s top importer of timber, which it said underscored the urgency for Beijing to regulate imports and probe their origins.
“The scale of the logging is so unsustainable that natural forests will be exhausted very soon if nothing changes,” Beibei Yin, who led the research team that compiled the report, said by phone from London where Global Witness is based.
“The Chinese companies which import most of the wood are so significant that if all of them together stop buying there is still a chance to revert back,” she said.
Global Witness took 155,000 cubic meters as a sustainable log export volume from the Solomons, which is the lowest but most recently calculated of several government and expert analyses, with the highest being approximately 300,000.
It gave no date of its own for the possible exhaustion of forests but cited a preliminary estimate of 2036 which was made in 2011 by the Solomons’ Forestry Ministry.
The Solomon Islands’ prime minister’s office directed Reuters to the secretary for the forestry minister, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
China’s commerce ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
The Solomon Islands has more than 2.2 million hectares of forest covering approximately 80 percent of its land area, which is spread over 990 islands.
Though the country’s Forestry Ministry has previously said it had toughened regulations to combat illegal logging, Global Witness said a lack of enforcement capacity increased the risk of loggers cutting more than permitted.
Global Witness’ satellite analysis of logging roads showed 669 kilometers lying above 400 meters elevation, where logging is nominally restricted.
Interpol estimates the global trade in illegal lumber to be worth more than U.S. $50 billion annually.