Sunday, June 26, 2022

ANALYSIS | Why sparsely populated islands in the South Pacific Ocean have become the next dispute between the United States and China

(Nation World News) — The island nations that sprawl across the South Pacific Ocean — sparsely populated atolls and volcanic archipelagos, known more for tourism than their lucrative natural resources — may not, at first glance, seem like much of a geopolitical prize. Yet these island countries have become the latest arena in a great power contest between the United States and China.

This feud has come to the fore in recent days, after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a 10-day tour of eight countries to promote cooperation and make a major regional economic and security proposal. scope that could significantly increase Beijing’s role in the South Pacific.

Wang’s trip, and news of the proposed deal, sent the powers with long-standing relationships in the South Pacific – Australia, New Zealand and the United States – into motion, with Washington committing last week to stepping up its own support for the region and for Canberra to send its foreign minister on a grieving diplomatic tour.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa at an agreement signing ceremony in Apia. (Credit: VAITOGI ASUISUI MATAFEO/SAMOA OBSERVER/AFP/Getty Images)

Some leaders in the Pacific islands opposed these positions and highlighted the importance of other issues, such as climate change. Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama noted that “geopolitical dots mean less than nothing to someone whose community is sinking under rising seas.”

China’s bid for a broader regional pact ultimately failed to gain support at last week’s 10-nation meeting, but Wang sent a clear message about China’s interest in the region, raising concerns that these island nations , which have a history of strategic importance, have no choice but to navigate the growing tensions between the great powers.

From island to island

From the point of view of Washington and Canberra, Beijing is strengthening its ties with South Pacific capitals, so it may try to turn infrastructure investment deals, or even seemingly modest security deals, into a foothold. military.

This would open a gap in the military presence of both countries in the South Pacific, where the United States maintains military bases and a Compact of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Republic of Palau, which grants it military operation rights over the airspace and waters of these nations.

Australia maintains its own navy in the region and has long-standing defense and security ties with neighboring island governments, including in peacekeeping and military training. Both Australia and New Zealand are part of regional and bilateral security pacts in the Pacific.

China-US tensions by military presence in the Pacific 0:36

The region was included in a joint statement between US President Joe Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week, expressing concern about “the establishment of a military presence in the Pacific by a State that does not share our values”.

And for the US and Australia, the threats to the regional status quo have echoes of World War II, when the islands were used by Imperial Japan to threaten Australia, before becoming part of a US “island-to-island” offensive. island” (island hopping, in English) that ultimately played in favor of the change in trend in the Pacific.

“The islands straddle a key passageway for US and Australian military and merchant ships,” said Timothy Heath, senior international defense fellow at the RAND Corporation in Arlington.

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“If China could establish (military) basing rights, it could temporarily deploy warships and aircraft on the islands. (Its) ships and aircraft could threaten passing US and Australian ships and aircraft,” he said, adding that even a strengthened presence, short of a military one, could help China “gather sensitive information about US and Australian military operations.”

Making friends

China’s interest in building relations with Pacific Island countries is not new. In the early 2000s, as the United States turned its attention to perceived threats in the Middle East, a newly outward-oriented China was on its way to becoming an economic and diplomatic partner of the Pacific Island countries, especially all because he was looking to win friends away from Taiwan, which is now only formally recognized by four of the 14 South Pacific nations, after the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched allegiance to China in 2019.

ANALYSIS | Why sparsely populated islands in the South Pacific Ocean have become the next dispute between the United States and China

Chinese Ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at the opening ceremony for the Chinese-funded national stadium in Honiara on April 22, 2022.

In recent years, as Beijing has pursued a more assertive foreign policy and expanded development funding globally in a bid to enhance its international influence, its visibility on the Pacific islands has also increased. China has backed highly publicized projects in some Pacific Island countries — a national sports stadium to host the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands, roads in Papua New Guinea, bridges in Fiji — and has sent high-level officials to the region. , including two visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping, one in 2014 and one in 2018. It has also become a major trading partner for the Pacific Island economies.

And while Australia has remained the region’s top aid donor for the past five years, according to data compiled by the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, experts say China is perceived in some quarters as a more expeditious partner than the United States. traditional donors.

“There is an assumption that China will do more,” said Celsus Talifilu, a political adviser based in the Solomon Islands province of Malaita, who has been an outspoken critic of how the national government has handled its recent dealings with China.

“It may be that our politicians think China is easier to deal with in terms of getting things on the ground quickly, compared to other donors who have been in the Solomons for a long time but have been very slow,” he told Nation World News. .

Concern about containment

Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its ever-expanding navy have changed the way Washington views China’s diplomacy and outreach, including in the South Pacific.

WWII shipwreck found 1:03

Concerns that Beijing may have military ambitions in the region were heightened in April after China and the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement, raising fears that it could create an opportunity for China to establish a military presence in the country.

Foreign Minister Wang was quick to deny that China’s latest moves had a military slant, stating adamantly about the Solomons deal that Beijing had no intention of building military bases and asking observers “not to fret.” too much” about China’s overall goals in the region, where, he said, it has “no intention of fighting for more influence”.

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“China and developing countries achieving common development and prosperity will make the world more just, harmonious and stable,” Wang said after a meeting with Pacific island leaders last week.

Many observers say that Beijing may be a long way from obtaining a military base in the region, but agree that expanding its presence abroad would be the next logical step for an ambitious power like China.

China seeks to revive its economy after COVID-19 outbreak 0:49

“As China grows, it is not surprising that Chinese security interest in the (South Pacific) region also grows,” said Denghua Zhang, a researcher at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the National University of China. Australia, in Canberra.

One driver may be the concern, often discussed by Chinese scholars and strategists, that China will be encircled by the United States and its allies. This has reinforced the concept of breaking “island chains” seen as encircling China, in particular, with military bases on islands close to China and in the Pacific, according to Zhang. These include US military bases in Japan and Guam, and the military presence in the Philippines.

In an analysis of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific published last year, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences senior fellow Liu Ming and his co-authors expressed this concern, writing: “The [estadounidense] of containment is to politically isolate China throughout the region by expanding a network of allies and partners, in order to draw more ‘Indo-Pacific’ countries into the US camp.

the blue pacific

China’s growing rapprochement in the region has left other powers on the line, struggling to energize their presence, from Australia’s “Step-Up” policy and New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset”, both in 2018, to the Washington’s “Pacific Pledge” a year later.

“Everyone has built these new Pacific initiatives … which essentially amount to the same thing, wanting to make sure that they remain the partner of choice and that China is not getting an advantage,” said Sandra Tarte, an associate professor at the School Law and Social Sciences from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

To some extent, there is good news for the Pacific Island countries: as these powers try to outdo each other, this can bring more attention to local governments and make them stronger.

ANALYSIS | Why sparsely populated islands in the South Pacific Ocean have become the next dispute between the United States and China

Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Bob Loughman Weibur and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose with officials after a signing ceremony between the two countries in the capital Port Vila on June 1, 2022.
(Photo by ginny stein / AFP) (Photo by GINNY STEIN/AFP via Getty Images)

“Pacific Islander peoples … are not new to global and geopolitical competition,” said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, associate professor of Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

It dates back to the 19th century, when the islands were the center of colonial competition, to the Cold War, when the nascent Pacific Island countries were pressured to ward off Soviet advances. But as time goes on — and if tensions between the United States and China continue to rise — the balancing act may become more difficult, Kabutaulaka said.

This may be one of the factors why the comprehensive pact devised by Beijing did not materialize last week. Another may be the “Blue Pacific” concept of the region, which emphasizes collective decision-making about the region through consultation with all members.

“Our position was that you cannot have a regional agreement when the region has not come together to discuss it,” Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa said on Thursday.

Wang signed a series of bilateral agreements in areas such as economic cooperation, disaster management and police equipment. But even without a deal — this time — competition and differing views on the relationship with China could undermine cohesion in the region, Kabutaulaka said.

“I am concerned that geopolitical competition … will affect the strong regional bond.”

Nation World News Desk
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