Pacific islands benefit from geostrategic competition
Authors: Denghua Zhang, ANU and Michael O’Keefe, La Trobe University
The Pacific Islands are receiving more attention from other countries, with high-level delegations from the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand visiting the region in the past five months. Alarmed by the rise of China, traditional powers are now stepping up their engagement with the region to actively compete with China.
The Pacific Islands are not pawns in the geostrategic contest but active players with an agency. They have become more cautious in their dealings with external actors and better able to provide benefits for their national interests. This is illustrated by the fact that the Pacific islands failed to reach two broad cooperation agreements with China during the visit of Foreign Minister Wang Yi in May 2022. This reflects their caution in expanding relations with China to security issues – an increasingly sensitive area amid great power competition. .
Their concerns are heightened by the China-Solomon Islands security pact, the nature and implications for regional security of which remain unclear. For Pacific island countries, a balance of relations with traditional powers and China makes sense.
Pacific island countries have taken advantage of great power rivalry to push their own agenda. In meetings with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Pacific leaders reiterated that climate change, not geostrategic competition, is the greatest threat to the region.
Not signing their proposed cooperation agreements with Pacific countries is a setback for China. But the geostrategic competition is far from over and is set to intensify, with China making notable gains in the region. During Wang’s visit, China concluded several bilateral agreements with its Pacific partners, including Belt and Road cooperation, disaster relief, infrastructure and tourism with Kiribati and the United States. agriculture, fisheries and health with Tonga, to name but a few.
Chinese diplomacy has its own strengths and weaknesses. Its infrastructure support, bolstered by rapid approval and delivery, as well as its government scholarships and technical training, are of considerable appeal to Pacific island states. China promotes small, low-cost projects such as growing ‘fungal grass’ (juncao) which can be a cash crop for farmers in the Pacific. Pilot projects have already started in Papua New Guinea and Fiji and will expand to other Pacific countries as one of China’s six priorities in the region.
China’s influence in the region will continue to be limited by its dominant government-to-government approach, as its engagement with non-state actors is still weak. Limited press access during Wang Yi’s trip alienated independent journalists in the Pacific. China will also face increased competition from traditional powers, particularly in terms of infrastructure. In May 2022, Quad leaders pledged to “strengthen health infrastructure…and provide sustainable infrastructure” in the Pacific.
China’s signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands during Australia’s 2022 election campaign was a low point in Australia-China relations. China’s swift actions under the guise of an election campaign highlight its weakness as a trusted “partner of choice”. Earlier rumors of potential Chinese bases were probably exaggerated, but they were met by the skillful diplomacy of Pacific leaders who took advantage of their influence and persuasive Australian diplomacy. Canberra’s “step-up” included increased aid and decisive actions, such as outbidding China to build bases at Blackrock in Fiji and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Pacific leaders use geopolitical competition to deliver advantages to their nations and to Australia. Recent events have revealed the domestic politics at play in Pacific capitals, a dynamic often underestimated in geopolitical analyses. This tendency of domestic politics to respond to geopolitical realities should be closely considered by the new Labor government and early signals from Wong are positive.
The new government shares all the concerns of the Morrison government, but has nothing to envy. Labor governments have traditionally been seen as expressing softer declaratory politics and being stronger on aid. Such approaches will be welcome in Pacific capitals, but climate change is where the Albanian government will be able to significantly strengthen Australia’s Pacific policy.
Australia already has significant advantages over China, including proximity and historical and cultural ties. The Australian Defense Force has been instrumental in cementing ties through military diplomacy, which directly counters China’s alleged military ambitions that threaten Australian interests and Australia itself. The strong representation of the Albanian government on indigenous issues and climate change will be welcome in the Pacific.
Penny Wong’s hasty trips to the Pacific to counter China were a good start to resetting relations. Wong sent all the right messages by listening to Pacific concerns, respecting sovereignty, providing stronger support and responding to climate change. Labor has taken a step forward from the Morrison government by respectfully engaging with the security concerns of Pacific Islanders themselves. The Heat have been removed from the Cold War competition for now, but Beijing will learn from this episode and Canberra will need to be vigilant and above all, deliver.
The Pacific is used to Canberra responding to crises only for its support to fade, but China will always be on the horizon.
Dr Denghua Zhang is a researcher at the Australian National University.
Dr. Michael O’Keefe is a senior lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University.