SYDNEY – Competition is heating up between China and the US in the southern Pacific, with each seeking to build influence among island nations that have not received much superpower attention since World War II.
The stakes rose in 2022 when the Solomon Islands signed a security accord with Beijing – a first for the region – raising fears in Australia and New Zealand, both US allies, about a possible Chinese military base in the neighbourhood. That prompted a flurry of diplomacy and pledges of aid and cooperation in areas including climate change, which is seen as an existential threat by the island nations because of rising sea levels.
1. What countries are we talking about?
There are some 14 independent Pacific island nations located mostly around or below the equator. Only one, Papua New Guinea, has a population greater than 1 million. Apart from the Solomons, others include Vanuatu, Samoa and Kiribati.
Their combined gross domestic product of roughly US$36 billion (S$49.5 billion) is about that of the US state of Vermont. Some island countries describe their foreign policy as “friend to all, enemy to none,” but they also have long-running ties to the US and its allies in the region, Australia and New Zealand.
2. How is China reaching out, and why?
China has been paying more attention to the region as it tries to raise its profile on the world stage. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare, extended trip to the region in May that included a China-Pacific islands ministerial meeting in Fiji.
As in other emerging markets, China has become one of the biggest national lenders to the Pacific states. According to Chinese government figures, its trade with the region – mostly seafood, wood and minerals – expanded to US$5.3 billion in 2021, from just US$153 million in 1992.
The outreach is part of China’s effort to build a network of developing countries to take its side in global forums such as the United Nations, where the US can usually count on the support of its European, East Asian and other allies.
That also helps the Chinese government to isolate Taiwan, the democratically run island that China considers a renegade province. In 2019 Beijing scored a big win when the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.
3. Why are Western countries worried?
They don’t want to see such strategically placed islands drifting into China’s orbit. One of the most important World War II battles was fought at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, part of a campaign by the US to halt Japan’s southward advance. Then as now, any hostile military presence could threaten Australia’s and New Zealand’s trade routes.
Parts of the US– Guam and Hawaii – could also be vulnerable. The area is part of Washington’s “island chain” security concept, which sees them as part of defensive lines between Asia and the US.
Mr Wang has dismissed any criticism. “We must point out that South Pacific island countries are not a backyard of any country, still less a pawn for geopolitical rivalry,” he said.
4. What happened with the Solomons?
Chinese diplomats had been wooing Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare for years with stronger economic ties. Still, when a draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked in March 2022, it appeared to catch Australia and the US off guard. Mr Sogavare has insisted China won’t be allowed to construct a military base, and accused Western critics of treating Solomon Islanders like children with guns.
But the draft appeared to grant the Chinese navy a safe harbour. China said the agreement was signed in April, but no final text was released. A US Coast Guard vessel received no response when it sought to make a refuelling stop in August, and soon after the Solomons announced a moratorium on foreign naval visits “pending updates in protocol procedures”.
In a speech at the UN in September, Mr Sogavare said his country “will not be coerced into choosing sides.”
5. How have the US and Australia responded?
There has been a burst of activity to try to repair strained relations. Island leaders had bristled when then-President Donald Trump and then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison played down the effects of the climate crisis.
After taking office in May, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his government pledged to reduce carbon emissions. US President Joe Biden had leaders of more than a dozen island nations to a first-ever White House summit in September, where they signed an agreement that includes commitments on climate change, development and security as well as the opening of some new US embassies.
That includes one in the Solomons, which had baulked at the deal until what it called “indirect” references to China were removed. Mr Wang’s attempt to seal a similar deal in Fiji fell apart because of what some regional officials called Beijing’s attempts to rush it through.
At the annual Pacific Islands Forum in July 2022, US Vice-President Kamala Harris appeared on video to announce plans to almost triple annual funding to the region to US$60 million. Mr Albanese attended the event, while no Chinese leader addressed the forum. BLOOMBERG