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Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

China’s diplomatic gambit in Pacific Island states | Sheel Bhadra Kumar

Friday 22 July 2022, by Sheel Bhadra Kumar

There are serious differences in perceptions and priorities between the Pacific island nations and larger powers in defining regional challenges and priorities. A strategic competition further complicates regional dynamics and undermines sovereign choices limiting options for sovereign islands.

Over the past several decades, China has sought to gain militarily, economic and political clout over small states and tiny island countries throughout the pacific region. The US and its allies like, Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan and India are concerned that China’s increased pressure in the region could threaten security their interests. Stability in the Pacific region is critical to the US security and strategic interests. As, Kurl Campbell, the US security adviser quipped that China is seeking to acquire military facilities in the pacific, limiting US influence in this region.

Geographical location of the Pacific island countries

 The Pacific island countries are a cluster of 14 states in the Pacific region. The Pacific island region covers more than 300,000 square miles of land. This region lies in the mid of North Pacific ocean and South Pacific Ocean. In the far east of the pacific region is North America, in the south lies Australia and New Zealand, in the north lies Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. These are very tiny island countries located in highly strategic sea lane which keep key positions in geo-politics. The great arc of islands, located in north and east Australia equator and east of the Philippines, is called Micronesia and the eastern Pacific countries are called Polynesian countries. There are other island countries widely scattered from west to east. These island countries are a mixture of independent countries, associated states, integral part of non-pacific island countries and independent states.

Strategic significance of PIC [pacific island countries]

 The pacific region keeps followings economic, political and strategic value.
This region is abundance in fisheries, marine resources, sea- minerals and other potential sources of energy.

  • These regions can play an important role in power rivalry as springboard of power projections. Major Powers compete with each other to gain control over these strategic territories.
  • They have some of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world.
  • These pacific countries can act as a potential vote bank for major powers to mobilize international opinion.

Recently a meeting of the US, Japan, Australia and Indian leaders was organized at the QUAD summit in Tokyo to counter growing military and economic clout of China in this region. There developed a consensus to form Indo-Pacific Economic Framework [IPEF] among QUAD member countries. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, to counter this move, paid an official visit of eight days from May 26 to June 4, 2022, to ten Pacific Island countries to ramp up ties with tiny but strategically located island nations. He visited eight countries including the Solomons, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, East Timor, Tonga, Vanatu, Kiribati and Samoa as well as holding video calls with Micronesia and the Cook islands.

Now a question arises why China intends inroads into PIC [Pacific Island nation] s-

China keeps following ambitious geopolitical agenda in this region.

  • China intends to weaken US and the western influence in this region.
  • It intends to alter Asia’s military balance.
  • China has ambition to counterattack the US which has continued to encircle and blockade china internationally.
  • It is making preparation to take over Taiwan at an appropriate time. It has been successful in getting diplomatic recognition from ten out of fourteen PICS.
  • China’s ultimate goal is to establish military foothold in the south —pacific region which would force a reorganization of US pacific forces.

The Chinese foreign minister was on a mission of completing sweeping agreements spanning from policing, security, economic infrastructure, fisheries, free trade, public health, climate change and others. But this proposal has been deferred due to lack of discussion and consensus among Pacific Ocean nations. Due to leakage of the draft proposal and doubts raised by the US and Australia administration, the pre-written agreement proposed by China could not materialize. China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands raised fear that China could send troops to the islands or even establish military base there, not far from Australia and the US military base in the region. China has a pattern of offering shadowy, vague deals with little transparency.

Privileged China

China does not have any territorial disputes or controversial legacies with island nations. While the Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia and the US have controversial legacies like military intervention, subjugation and grabbing benefits and privileges there, china does not have any colonial legacies in the pacific region. The US, France and others have conducted nuclear tests in this region, but not China. China did not commit any war crimes on Pacific islands. Compared to these factors, China is following a new pattern that carries considerable economic opportunities like debt, loan, security and development assistance schemes. But the west perceives Chinese assistance as unsustainable, opaque and unclear.

 What does China seeks to achieve?

China wants to seek security co-operation along with economic diplomacy towards the PIC. It is trying to use its leverage through diplomacy, debt, trade or elite capture to establish its presence in the Pacific region. China’s interest in the PIC is of relatively recent origin, and is linked to China’s rise in the past few decades. The PIC lies in the natural line of expansion of China’s maritime interest and naval power. Therefore, to become an essential prerequisite for becoming a hegemonistic power, it has become vital for China to control effectively pacific gulf water for its navy.

Therefore on November 22, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jimping paid a state visit to Fiji where he had a summit meeting with leaders of eight pacific countries. The PRC has a long history of providing aid to the regional countries, dating back to the 1970s.On April 19, 2022; China government signed a security pact with the Salomon islands. Its final version has not been public but leaked draft says that China can deploy its security forces, police, and military personnel’s and use its port. This military pact aptly shows China’s intension to become regional hegemon threatening global power balance.

Implications of China’s recent move-

 In the current visit of Wang Yi, two documents, china Pacific Island Countries common Development Vision and the other China-Pacific Islands Five Year Action Plan for common development[2022-2026 were to be signed but due to its leakage, the Pacific countries declined to sign them. The PIC did not agree to China’s extensive and ambitious proposals. Consensus was missing. But this defeat did not stop China from pulling bilateral deals of similar nature.

Concluding remarks 

The intensification of China’s diplomacy towards the pacific islands has made powers like the US and Australia more cautious. The US has started revisiting its diplomatic priority for the region. Australia had sent its newly appointed foreign secretary Penny Wong to the islands for revitalizing ties. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi has ended his marathon visit to the Pacific island countries but his visit has generated a wave of intensification of struggle for dominance in the Pacific region.

(Author: Dr. Sheel Bhadra Kumar is assistant professor of political science, Government Mata Karma Girls College Mahasamund, Chhattisgarh)

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