China’s proposal for a Common Development Vision with Pacific island countries (PICs) is by far its boldest pitch in the vast Blue Continent. The breadth of cooperation areas outlined ranged from education, people-to-people ties, and health to climate change, economics, and security. The move elevated the importance of PICs as a collective, which the region can leverage as it becomes a theater for geopolitical contest among great powers. Beijing’s forays may induce opportunistic but wary Oceanian nations to calibrate their foreign policy and seek greater agency through cohesion. But they can also amplify already existing fissures within the Pacific family.
Several factors drive Beijing’s Pacific gambit. These include access to the region’s rich marine resources, flipping Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, breaking out from what it sees as U.S. and allied attempts to bottle it up in its near seas, and seeking potential overseas bases. Although minuscule by land area, the region is abundant in fisheries and untold seabed minerals and straddles vital sea lanes. The myriad of volcanic and coral islands strewn across the vast blue expanse are stepping stones to Latin America, wherein Chinese trade, investments and influence has grown by leaps and bounds. Some islands also host foreign military bases, and the underwater topography serves submarine cables and acts as passageways for subsurface ships. Signing access agreements with PICs will create spaces for Beijing to operate its bluewater navy and secure its burgeoning maritime traffic.
China’s Long Swim Across the Pacific Makes Waves
China’s overtures, in turn, encourage PICs to hedge, raring to benefit from the newfound attention they are getting from great powers while avoiding getting entangled in their geopolitical game. PICs welcomed the dueling visits of China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Wang went to the Solomons, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea, while Wong traveled to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Fiji, co-host of the recent second China-PICs Foreign Ministers Meeting, signed on to Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative in 2018, but was also the first PIC to join the Washington-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is the only country with a Compact of Free Association with the United States that has formal ties with Beijing.
Long known as the traditional backyard of the United States and allies Australia and New Zealand, China has been making significant headway in the Pacific in recent years. Ten PICs that have official ties with China signed memoranda of understanding for Belt and Road cooperation. Incumbent Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama attended the first Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in 2017. Former Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill graced the second iteration in 2019, which also took place in the Chinese capital. Over 30 representatives from five political parties in Vanuatu joined the virtual Communist Party of China and World Political Parties Summit last July 2021. Last October, China, and PICs held their inaugural foreign ministers’ meeting online, with the second one convened last May 30 in a hybrid set-up in Suva, Fiji’s capital.
At the second China-PICs foreign ministers conference, Beijing put cooperation in wide-ranging areas on the table as part of what it called a Common Development Vision. This included regular high-level exchanges, governance and development planning, infrastructure and connectivity, market access, agriculture and fisheries, scholarships and training, poverty reduction, culture and sports, sub-national twinning arrangements, and medical assistance. It also offered assistance for disaster preparedness, marine environment protection, and combating cybercrime and non-traditional security threats. This comprehensive package, including the security dimension, has raised fears among PICs of a potential overarching influence of one partner. It also startled mainstay Pacific powers wary that China’s entry may upset the longstanding regional balance of power.
But while the entry of a new development partner is surely welcomed, China’s arrival and its timing may also exacerbate cleavages within the Pacific community. FSM President David Panuelo’s leaked letter to his Oceanian counterparts exposed such concerns. The idea of confining engagement with Beijing on purely economic and technical fields reveals a divide between U.S.-freely associated Micronesian states on the one hand and Melanesian and Polynesian states on the other (except those that are associated with or are territories of New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The latter two are open to working with China on security issues, as evidenced by Chinese naval port visits, provision for training, and donations of military vehicles and supplies to Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu in recent years. In 2018, for instance, China donated a hydrographic and surveillance vessel to Fiji. The recent China-Solomon Islands security pact is another case in point.
The China factor also loomed large in the independence referendums for Chuuk (from FSM), Bougainville (from Papua New Guinea), and New Caledonia (from France). It also figured in the Solomons’ domestic politics, with the central government and Malaita province at odds over the country’s diplomatic switch to Beijing in 2019.
By engaging it as a sum and not just as individual parts, China may have opened new doors for Oceania. Such a format can increase the small island countries’ collective bargaining position. Pacific regionalism may get a big boost, with China set to designate a special envoy for the region. If other great and middle powers take this page and engage the region as a whole, especially in relation to existential transboundary issues like climate change and sea-level rise, PICs will have better venues to articulate their pressing concerns.
While the Pacific nations are no stranger to being subjugated and partitioned by great powers, the current geopolitical game constitutes their most serious stress test as sovereign entities dealing with clashing giants. So far, they are showing openness to work with as many partners. Only time can tell whether they can avoid falling into the orbit of one power to the other’s chagrin. Will external pressures energize regionalism? Will PICs gravitate towards an organization along the lines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which, shortcomings and all, has been trying to assert its centrality as great powers vie for influence in its neighborhood? Whichever way it goes, China’s thrust into the Pacific opens new vistas for small island states keen to get their voices heard and their interests served.