The Pacific Islands are emerging as yet another arena of competition between China, the United States, and other powers. Beijing’s influence in the region has surged over the last decade alongside its rapidly growing aid and infrastructure investments. On the sidelines of the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea, President Xi Jinping held a high-level meeting with Pacific Island leaders, announcing new partnerships and signing many of them up as official participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. While China’s financial assistance has been mostly welcomed by Pacific nations, some recipient countries along with outside parties have begun to express concerns. Many of China’s larger infrastructure projects in the region have provoked the same anxieties as those seen in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere. These include concerns about unsustainable debt levels, political strings attached to Chinese aid, and, in some cases, the potential for China to use port and airport projects as a means of gaining military access to the region.
In response, Australia and New Zealand have refocused economic and diplomatic efforts in the region, and Canberra has begun jockeying to outbid Beijing on certain strategic investments in the region. After seeing its assistance and influence in the region plummet in recent years, the United States has also begun to reverse course, with Vice President Mike Pence making a strong pitch for the United States as an alternative to Chinese investment during the recent APEC meetings. But despite the flurry of attention on Chinese inroads, Beijing remains an outsider in a region long-dominated, especially militarily, by the four resident powers, Australia, New Zealand, France, and the United States.
This map draws on data from a number of sources, including the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Aid Map, the websites of the U.S. Department of Defense, Australian Defence Force, New Zealand Defence Force, French Ministry of the Armed Forces, and regional news reports.