China’s real ambitions for the South Pacific

President Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ now extends across the Pacific Ocean, where his foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently completed a Pacific islands tour of sweeping ambition. Set against the backdrop of China’s stagnating economy yet continuing drive for world power, Wang sought to finalise Beijing’s security agreement with Solomon Islands; visited Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste; and hosted a meeting of Pacific island foreign ministers in Suva. Wang’s plans, however, didn’t all go smoothly. The Chinese Communist Party will, nonetheless, learn from its failed attempt at achieving a multilateral Pacific deal.

Wang proposed that China and the Pacific countries jointly formulate a ‘marine spatial plan’ to develop the so-called blue economy. Beijing is offering more investment through private capital and Chinese enterprise investment in Pacific island countries. China also proposes new security arrangements, including cybersecurity, reflecting Xi’s ‘global security initiative’, entailing Chinese police and other security forces dispatched to work with participating island nations at both bilateral and regional levels.

Wang’s plans includes establishing Confucius Institutes that embed Chinese-language consultants, teachers and volunteers throughout the islands. More than 1,000 Samoans have already studied Chinese at the Confucius Institute at the National University of Samoa. A separate ‘five-year action plan’ includes a Chinese special envoy being appointed to the region, laboratories and hundreds of training opportunities for law enforcement, and high-level forums.

Wang’s proposals to cash-strapped Pacific island nations would give China a larger footprint in the Pacific, challenging the regional forums that currently defend international law and maintain peace and security. These proposals spotlight the security concerns of the region and Indo-Pacific allies including the US, Australia, New Zealand, France and Canada.

What’s prompted Beijing to propose a regionwide economic and security pact with Pacific island nations? And what are the geopolitical consequences of China’s plans for the Pacific? The responses of several countries highlight the implications, and include the US reopening an embassy in Solomon Islands after a 30-year hiatus.

China’s intentions in the Pacific have now been outlined, so it’s clear why the Solomons security agreement met with international concern. The deal, which took years to execute, is connected to Beijing’s campaign to convert Pacific islands from allegiances with Taiwan to the People’s Republic. The cost of converting the Solomons was high, but the investment now appears to have had a strategic payoff with a window to the South Pacific opening for Beijing.

Wang’s tour seized the moment to prise that window further open. Even though he failed to win a consensus from the 10 Pacific nations for his ‘common development vision’, several countries, including Samoa, Kiribati and Niue, signed up for enhanced cooperation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government has also flagged its determination to push on with wide-ranging trade and security agreements with Pacific island nations.

China’s dream of Pacific expansion ratifies several core interests. The agreement with Solomon Islands reportedly allows China to ‘send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces’ and provides for ‘stopovers and replenishment of supplies’. These elements suggest the potential establishment of a military base, although both governments deny this will happen.

But similar agreements have already been made with other Pacific island nations that involved their acceding to build dual military–commercial facilities in return for money and assistance. This is precisely what China wants and has been working towards for decades through its foreign-aid program, seeking dual-use development along with regional cyber control.

Indeed, just a few weeks after the Solomons deal was signed, Xi announced plans to set up a domestic legal framework for expanding the Chinese military’s role in other countries, allowing for Chinese armed forces to ‘safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests’.

Solomon Islands’ vast exclusive economic zone is resource-rich, replete with timber, significant fish stocks and a range of other natural resources both above and beneath the sea. With 1.4 billion people, it’s unsurprising that China is keen to exploit the region, despite claims to the contrary.

Flipping Solomon Islands from its long-term support for Taiwan in 2019 was a diplomatic success for Beijing. It puts pressure on other nearby island nations, especially the few remaining countries in the region that support Taipei.

A related message that has been conveyed internationally is that Washington’s (and Taipei’s) influence in the Pacific is fading while Beijing’s rises. Domestically, China’s state-controlled media has presented this deal as a significant strategic loss to the US and Australia.

A further interest connected to Beijing’s soft-power push into the Pacific is to eventually add to China’s bloc of ‘global south’ votes at the United Nations. Although this strategy may prove unreliable, garnering South Pacific nations’ votes can help China at the UN.

Almost like a jigsaw piece, the Solomon Islands deal fits perfectly into China’s efforts to reframe the world order, piece by piece, by co-opting small states. It’s now clear that China’s ambitions extend very broadly across the Pacific.

Washington responded to the Beijing–Honiara deal by sending a senior delegation led by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, to meet with leaders in Solomon Islands, Fiji and PNG and register the US’s interests and concerns, including the creation of a potential security risk to the wider region.

Indo-Pacific nations including the US and its allies face a concerted assault on the international rules-based order. To assume Beijing’s intentions are benign would be naive at best, even though some challenges are best shared, such as climate-change action and responses to natural disasters. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently outlined the US approach to China:

We don’t seek to block China from its role as a major power … But we will defend and strengthen the international law, agreements, principles and institutions that maintain peace and security, protect the rights of individuals and sovereign nations, and make it possible for all countries—including the United States and China—to coexist and cooperate … China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.

As Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo warned, Wang’s ‘pre-determined joint communique’ could spark a new ‘cold war’ between China and the West. Poorer countries like the Solomons, Kiribati, PNG, Timor-Leste and other vulnerable Pacific island nations are confronted with solving monumental challenges. Unless Australia and its allies effectively help Pacific islands as respectful, reliable partners, they may well seek alternatives in their search for solutions.

But with the type of assistance proposed by the Chinese regime, the case has been made that there will very likely be serious strings attached and the promise of a sustainable security architecture can quickly be converted to one of authoritarian control. A taste of this was experienced as Wang’s entourage sought to totally control media coverage of the tour, and its sourness was noted locally.

While the CCP will have learned lessons from this grand tour, so too have Pacific island leaders. Renewed US attention and Australia’s new, closer alignment with the needs of Pacific countries will be helpful.