The South Pacific region consists of many smaller Island states that enjoy vast exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The region is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Due to its strategic location, it is emerging as a key theatre in the great power politics.
The South Pacific has traditionally been dominated by Australia. France maintains control over some territories (like New Caledonia) in the region and is an important player in regional geopolitics. The United States (US) too holds considerable interest in the strategic affairs of this region. Now, China is making efforts to gain a foothold in the South Pacific. The growing Chinese interest has forced Australia and the US into action. As some regional states flirt with China, the great power politics is sharpening in the South Pacific.
Three recent developments help us understand the intensifying strategic rivalries: first, Solomon Islands signed an agreement with China. The leaked draft of the agreement suggests that China has been granted an important role in the security-related matters in the Solomon Islands. More importantly, the increasing presence in the Solomon Islands will facilitate the greater Chinese role in the South Pacific.
The South Pacific has long been a focal point of competition for recognition between China and Taiwan as well. Slowly but steadily, China has managed to persuade some regional states to switch the recognition. The Solomon Islands has switched the recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Therefore, the increasing forays by China in the region are designed to not only expand its own influence but undercut Taiwan’s presence.
Second, in the last week of May, the US along with three Quad partners (India, Japan, Australia) and other nine countries (including seven from ASEAN) unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). So far, the IPEF has been well-received and an important South Pacific state, Fiji, joined the initiative as the 14th member. In the context of Chinese efforts, Fiji joining IPEF is a strategic signal.
The IPEF is significant as the Indo-Pacific strategies of the four Quad countries lacked an economic dimension. In fact, the US had withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership whereas India refused to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The IPEF signals the willingness of these countries to work together in shaping the economic future of the region as well.
And finally, last week, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited the South Pacific region. During the visit, he sought to persuade the South Pacific Island states to sign a wide-ranging, new agreement. The agreement would have dramatically expanded the Chinese presence and influence in the region, especially in the domain of defence and security. However, many Island States refused to go along. As per reports, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Samoa were concerned about the Chinese proposals.
All three developments have received considerable attention in the strategic circles across the Indo-Pacific region. The newly-elected Australian government, led by Anthony Albanese of the Labour Party, has been hard-pressed into action as the rising challenge of China in the backyard poses difficult questions for the Australian foreign and security policy.
Some strategic analysts have argued that China’s willingness to expand its strategic presence in the South Pacific is a direct response to the new, trilateral defence partnership between Australia, United Kingdom (UK) and the US, known as the AUKUS.
The AUKUS will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. It entails a long-term defence relationship which has bound the three countries tightly together. However, China-Australia relationship has been deteriorating before the signing of AUKUS.
For now, China’s efforts have not succeeded due to the lack of consensus among the South Pacific countries. China has released a position paper. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson has said that “China will continue to maintain close communication with relevant parties, give full play to the China-PICs [Pacific Island Countries] Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and build an even closer community of shared future between China and PICs.” It is clear that China will continue to make efforts to expand its presence and persuade the South Pacific states to agree on Chinese proposals.
However, what is surprising is that, despite the known concerns about the strategic implications of China’s growing presence, some states in the South Pacific are willing to consider Chinese proposals. Perhaps, just like Island states of the Indian Ocean, South Pacific countries are also playing one major player off against the other to obtain maximum benefits. The growing Chinese presence has already alerted Australia and the US to pay greater attention to the region.
The joint statement released after the Tokyo Quad summit last month contains a paragraph outlining the approach of Quad countries towards the Pacific Island countries. The statement notes that, “we will further strengthen our cooperation with Pacific Island countries, to enhance their economic well-being, strengthen health infrastructure and environmental resilience, to improve their maritime security and sustain their fisheries, to provide sustainable infrastructure, to bolster educational opportunities, and to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, which pose especially serious challenges for this region.”
The Quad countries are “committed to working together to address the needs of Pacific Island partners. We reaffirmed our support for Pacific Islands Forum unity and for Pacific regional security frameworks.”
It is clear that to contain the expanding Chinese power, Quad countries would be necessitated to work together, individually and collectively, in the South Pacific.