Decoding China’s rising influence in the South Pacific
17 May 2013|

What’s China up to in our near neighbourhood? That’s an important question at a time when Australia has just declared that we’ll structure the ADF around just two of our Principal Tasks (PDF), the second of which is to promote stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste.

In this context, Jenny-Hayward Jones’ new Lowy paper, Big Enough for All of Us: Geo-Strategic Competition in the Pacific Islands, provides some welcome nuance on what China’s growing presence and economic clout may mean (and not mean) for regional countries’ interests and ours.

Although analysts have questioned the strength of the ‘causal link between the strategic theology of the initial chapters of the White Paper and the wish list of equipment projects further in’, Australia’s renewed security focus on the near neighbourhood is real. While the South Pacific contains less than 10 million of ‘the half billion souls that live between us and China’, the real estate and inhabitants of the region are important for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere.

As Ross Terrill noted in yesterday’s Strategist, ‘abstraction is a perilous approach to the reality of China’. One of the many things to like about Jenny’s study, then, is its lack of American ‘eagles’, Chinese ‘pandas’ or other creatures signifying such abstraction and the use of countries as symbols.

Jenny argues—pretty convincingly I think, and as others have suggested—that there’s little to no evidence of China currently actively seeking to project hard power into the region. As a case in point, PLA-N vessels periodically hosting cocktail parties in South Pacific harbours are generally en route to port visits, or even naval passage exercises, they’ve been invited to in Australian or NZ waters.

And as she’s pointed out elsewhere, China’s aid activities in the region are managed by the Ministry of Commerce more than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and much of its investment is driven by individual provinces or state owned companies, intended first and foremost to make profits and deliver jobs for Chinese workers rather than systematically advance China’s strategic interests. In that sense, Beijing doesn’t appear determined or fully able to coordinate multifaceted and diffuse Chinese political, business, investment, immigration and military engagement in the South Pacific. Its overall approach appears more haphazard than monolithic or a product of a grand design. Jenny also reminds us that ‘traditional’ powers, including the US and France as well as Australia and NZ, have a large, scalable, regional military presence and reach. And even Exim Bank concessional loans might be aimed at identifying potentially profitable areas to invest trade surpluses, diversify sources of raw materials, and promote engineering businesses, as much as foster influence and prestige.

But while that may provide a useful corrective and reassurance to anyone who thinks the sky is falling, it’ll probably temper more than eliminate the anxieties of professionally pessimistic Strategist readers. The Lowy paper is pretty persuasive that Beijing’s ‘a very long way from approaching Australia’s dominance of the aid, trade and strategic domains in the Pacific Islands region or displacing the US as the dominant military power from the north’. However, those who view China’s rise chiefly through a geo-strategic lens might feel that the fact it poses little challenge to Western primacy or our leadership in the region is a bit beside the point. Put simply, China doesn’t need to try (or even want) to supersede us for its growing local presence, weight and clout to greatly complicate our interests.

Complications in the military arena have been manageable to date. For example, China’s support for Frank Bainimarama doesn’t affect our Fiji options, which are constrained for their own reasons. But in a broader strategic sense, it isn’t so much we need to worry that ‘the Chinese are coming’; they’re already here. For instance, although the scale of Tongan indebtedness to Beijing might not buy the sort of influence fretted over this week, it probably does have potential to spark a more serious re-run of the kind of violence that required a brief stabilisation mission in 2006. And, as Jenny notes, future strategic circumstances could change. Although Chinese-Taiwanese rivalry has been much reduced since the diplomatic truce of 2008, intense political competition could return in a new guise over different issues.

To return to former Secretary Clinton’s comment “the Pacific’s big enough for all of us”, at 85 million square km (nearly a quarter of the world’s ocean) the South Pacific certainly ain’t small. Earlier this week I was more offhand than the idea warranted about suggestions that regional aid projects and military exercises offer a relatively low risk opportunity to encourage cooperation with China. Jenny also notes that the South Pacific Defence Ministers envisage inviting ‘new partners’ to observe regional military exercises in innocuous areas of ‘common interest’. But I think she’s closer to the mark in recommending that future collaboration with China occur ‘in areas that support Pacific Island economic development priorities’ and avoid focusing too much on security cooperation themes and mechanisms. (Notwithstanding our evolving strategic partnership with China, chapter six of the Defence White Paper treats engagement activities in our near neighbourhood pretty gingerly too.)

We can’t, and shouldn’t try to, prevent China assuming growing regional roles. But encouraging a PLA that doesn’t seem to be busting to get comfortable operating in our immediate approaches to do so would be something else altogether. As with Fiji, our guiding principle should be ‘first do no harm’.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user roberthuffstutter.