China competes for influence in the South Pacific

China competes for influence in the South Pacific
Image source: Reuters

Hong Kong: The South Pacific, dotted with small and vulnerable island states, has become a battleground for influence between China and the traditional benefactors of Australia, New Zealand, and the USA.

As New Zealand's "Maritime Security Strategy 2024" document, released in June, explained, "Certain countries are increasingly exercising hard power to test the limits of the rules-based international system, at the expense of rules that serve smaller countries like New Zealand ... Other states in our maritime area of interest are more assertively pursuing diplomatic, trade, security and development initiatives aimed at enhancing their influence, increasingly shaping international approaches to promote their vision, and challenging international rules and norms."

New Zealand's strategy added, "Increased strategic competition in the Pacific will produce a more contested environment with a proliferation of military installations, competing infrastructure investments and more attempts to influence regional bodies."

Although the document did not name China specifically, it went on to warn: "Collective action on maritime security challenges may be displaced by the pursuit of geopolitical objectives, and international partnerships with maritime security implications will not necessarily include us, or align with our interests."

Dr Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand's Massey University, told New Zealand's Maritime Security Symposium on June 13 that alarm "has become increasingly heightened and the disruptive nature of geopolitical engagement is deeply concerning for many of us".

She said defence diplomacy across the South Pacific started rising in 2018, but in 2022 the tempo of activities jumped 197 per cent compared to the preceding year.

The Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China in early 2022. This agreement included provisions for "China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement to the Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people's lives and property, providing humanitarian assistance, carrying out disaster response or providing assistance on other tasks agreed upon by the parties; China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have a stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands, and the relevant forces of China can be used to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomons."

This secretive bilateral agreement "spurred and sort of accelerated engagement by partner countries in response, particularly Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Japan and UK, between 2022 and 2023," Dr Powles explained.

Indeed, defence and police engagement with the Solomon Islands increased by approximately 550 per cent after this revelation.

There is deep concern that China might attempt to deploy People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the Solomon Islands and even set up a future military base. Sending PLA or People's Armed Police (PAP) personnel to Honiara to "maintain social order" would be a shocking development, because China usually only acts under the guise of United Nations peacekeeping missions or in multinational efforts such as the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy task force. There are instances of the PAP being dispatched to Afghanistan and Tajikistan for counterterrorism initiatives, but deployment to somewhere like the Solomon Islands to help keep the government in power would be unprecedented.

Since Solomon Islands shifted diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, officials have interacted twelve times already. Similarly, Vanuatu hosted no official visits from China until 2014, but since then it has received a stunning 20 visits.

Dr Powles also calculated that China's security engagement with Vanuatu increased a whopping 1,950 per cent since 2018. "So we have this massive, massive uptick, and maritime security activities are a significant proportion of these engagements, reflecting that external actors are using security relationships to compete for influence in the Pacific maritime domain, which in turn is raising concerns."

Indeed, the Pacific Islands Forum Security Outlook from 2023 stated that "competing and nonaligned security partners could overwhelm and subsequently undermine peace and security efforts in the region".

Dr Powles explained, "Geopolitics is very much driving security sector cooperation on land and at sea. Strategic rivalries have intensified these maritime security activities, and we've seen an increase from the development of maritime military facilities such as Lumbron Naval Base [in Papua New Guinea], to hydrographic surveys, to the provision of material aid and infrastructure, and operations countering illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. These activities have emerged as a central mechanism for partners to build relationships and influence, enable visibility and secure presence, and ultimately aim to serve as some form of deterrence in the Pacific."

The Kiwi academic has witnessed three key trends. "The first is the way in which countering IUU fishing has become a site, or an entry point, for strategic competition by all parties, actually." This includes the rise of coast guard diplomacy.

For instance, the USA is expanding coast guard partnerships and ship-rider engagements across the Pacific. Indeed, China challenged the legitimacy and legality of one combined event run by the US Coast Guard last year. "China is also seeking to increase its coast guard presence in the Pacific, not particularly surprising given China's interest in the region, but also given the size of China's fishing fleet."

In an overt shift in around 2022, when Beijing issued its "China's Position Paper on Mutual Respect and Common Development with Pacific Island Countries", it first stated it was a direct stakeholder in the security of the Pacific. "What is clear with this development around the China Coast Guard is that it may present an opportunity, or rather reflect a desire to broaden maritime security cooperation and presence, and also potentially set up a counter-arrangement to the current ship-rider arrangements that are in place," Dr Powles remarked.

From June 30, the China Coast Guard (CCG) will venture deep into the Pacific Ocean as it officially operates in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission Convention Area (WCPFC). This regional fisheries organization is designed to manage and sustain migratory fish stocks in the western and central Pacific Ocean.

The CCG has allocated a large fleet of 26 vessels to carry out fisheries inspections in a huge area of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, CCG vessels will be permitted to legally board any foreign fishing vessel on the high seas for the next year. This development is alarming, given the reckless abandon with which the CCG has acted against foreign fishermen and maritime law enforcement agencies in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

China's fishing fleet is the worst offender in terms of IUU fishing in the Pacific, and yet the CCG is being permitted to enforce the law in the WCPFC.

Dr. Powles highlighted a second key observation about the South Pacific. "The second trend is increasing convergence of geopolitics and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the Pacific." This was illustrated in the response to Tonga's volcanic eruption and tsunami in 2022. While it is good for nations to lend support after natural disasters, there is a danger of efforts turning into a race to fly the flag in a kind of firehose reaction. The New Zealand professor said this behavior is "likely to intensify".

"The third trend," Dr. Powles concluded, "is the rise of private actors in the maritime domain, as challenges become increasingly intersected, complex, and the capacity to respond increasingly stretched." A good example of this was, again, "the Tongan response where we saw a nascent but potentially important dynamic emerging where non-state actors were incorporated". This signals the rise of a form of civil-military fusion, as exemplified by Chinese fishing vessels acting as first responders, sailing from Suva after Tonga's disaster.

Debt-trap diplomacy is another valid concern for the region. Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu are among the most heavily indebted nations to China. The former owes more than 50 per cent of its public debt to Beijing, for example, a country that has no real history of forgiving debt to countries unable to pay.

Furthermore, Chinese projects, such as a hospital in Samoa, are the stuff of jokes over their poor quality. China typically brings in its own labor for these projects too, meaning there is little benefit to the local economy.

As Australian and US attention on the South Pacific waned in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, Beijing arrived as an attractive alternative for many of these small countries. Chinese investment has targeted the energy, transport, and real estate sectors in the Pacific. From 2013-23, Chinese investment in Australasia and the South Pacific reached USD80.78 billion. It has invested in 19 ports in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Solomon Islands, at least raising the specter of potentially using them for its naval ships.

Natural resources figure highly in China's calculus, such as fishing, mining, and logging. It is also exploring seabeds for high-value strategic minerals like copper, gold, manganese, zinc, cobalt, and nickel.

To date, there has been no real correlation between China's influence on South Pacific nations and their voting patterns in international organizations. Chihwei Yu, an associate professor at the Central Police University in Taiwan, noted in recent research for The Jamestown Foundation, that, "The PRC has not formally proposed or published a specific strategy for Pacific island countries. Observing its policies toward individual Pacific nations over the past decade, however, reveals several commonalities."

Firstly, "Countries that are located on pivotal access points for global trade or for geostrategic reasons have geopolitical salience for Beijing." He continued, "From a military and security perspective, such countries can serve as sites for force projection and logistical support. This is especially true if these countries have deep-water ports."

Yu noted too, "Part of this region's geopolitical importance lies in its location, with some South Pacific islands lying along shipping routes between the United States and Australia. As such, they could serve as support points for projecting overseas military power for any nation. The PRC has invested heavily in this region since 2013, driven by domestic resource needs as well as geopolitical and security considerations."

Secondly, Yu observed that China "tends to engage with Pacific countries through economic, cultural and social agreements. These agreements are not explicitly political in nature, but they carry political implications. This reflects the nature of the PRC's motivations for deepening cooperation with these countries, which are not entirely straightforward. If the host country's geographic location holds specific strategic value, Beijing accelerates cooperation on security issues - especially in terms of police and military training and organization."

"Third," Yu said, "the PRC is keen to engage in cooperation on police or public security issues with these countries. These collaborations may not involve military or defence matters, but nevertheless they carry political and security implications. When aggregated, these policies suggest that PRC goals have strategic and security intent.

This is particularly evident in efforts to counter potential military actions by the United States and Australia and to find ports in the region that can extend its military projection capabilities."

As an example of China's influence, it declared its readiness to provide security support for Tonga as it hosts the 2024 Pacific Islands Forum. It has also directly transferred Chinese nationals from Fiji and Vanuatu back to China for criminal prosecution.

Martin Purbrick, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, said, "The expansion of PRC police and law enforcement assistance to the Pacific Islands should not be seen as altruistic aid, but rather ought to be viewed in the context of the protection of Chinese economic interests and nationals in the region.

The expanded global footprint of Chinese economic activity has brought greater risk to the companies and people involved." Indeed, as China seeks to protect its global footprint, there is a correspondingly greater risk of nefarious influence and pressure being exerted on smaller cash-strapped nations such as those in the South Pacific.