Geostrategic competition between the United States and China is intensifying in the Pacific as both governments devote more resources to fighting for influence.
Author: Denghua Zhang, ANU
The US government released its Indo-Pacific Strategy in February 2022, which fills its political priorities in the region. This document is based on ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ concept announced by former President Donald Trump in 2017.
The strategy testifies to US concerns about China, argue that ‘intensification of the US focus is partly due to the fact that the Indo-Pacific is facing increasing challenges, especially from [the People’s Republic of China]’. It lists China, COVID-19 and climate change as core challenges for the United States. The competition with China has received bipartisan support among the U.S. Congress.
The Department of Defense is at the forefront of U.S. engagement in the Pacific. In August 2020, Mark Esper became the first US Secretary of Defense to visit Palau. He and the President of Palau confirmed their support for the rules-based international order in a veiled reference to China’s activities in the South China Sea. In May 2021, the department introduced Pacific Deterrence Initiative‘prioritizing China as the biggest pace challenge’.
Several other sectors will also be involved in US engagement with the Pacific. In a public webinar in December 2021, senior politicians announced that the United States will take a whole-off government approach to increasing long-term engagement in the Pacific in areas such as defense, infrastructure, health, education, climate change, disaster preparedness, and maritime security.
In competition with China, the United States will exploit its network of security allies and like-minded partners like that brags is its ‘single largest asymmetric force’. This will allow the United States to focus on the North Pacific, as the strategy highlights that the United States will prioritize the renewal of the Compact of Free Association with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Meanwhile, China’s engagement in the Pacific continued to grow in 2021. Chinese President Xi Jinping held telephone talks with Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in June, Tongan King Tupou VI and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in September and Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape in October. to continue China’s assistance.
At the first China-Pacific Foreign Ministers’ meeting in October, the Chinese government announced the establishment of a China-Pacific Center for Climate Change Cooperation, a Center for Poverty Reduction and Development Cooperation and a reserve of emergency supplies. At these meetings, China highlighted Xi’s concept of building a ‘Common destiny community‘and sought the support of the Pacific Islands in the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
China’s assistance to Tonga in the wake of the volcanic eruption and tsunami in January 2021 is characteristic of its growing input into the region. China provided five batches of aid to Tonga, which included $ 44,000 in kind from the Chinese Embassy in Tonga, $ 100,000 from the Chinese Red Cross, $ 158,000 in kind from the Chinese Embassy in Fiji and $ 3.16 million in supplies.
Similarly, China’s engagement with the Solomon Islands has increased significantly. Following the riots in November 2021, China sent a team of nine police advisers to Solomon Islands Police. This is the second shipment of this type, after China deployed police officers in 2013 and police liaison officers in September 2021 to Fiji. To counter China’s influence, the US government has announced the reopening of its embassy in Honiara, which closed in July 1993.
In February 2022, Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbing criticized US Indo-Pacific Strategy as ‘Revive'[ing] the mentality and bloc politics of the Cold War ‘. Chinese researchers’ analyzes of the US Indo-Pacific strategy have not yet been published, but it is likely that they will focus on the ‘Indo’ part rather than the Pacific. As research in 129 Chinese journal articles on Pacific studies suggestsChinese scholars tend to approach Pacific affairs from the angle of superpower policy.
Infrastructure will be a new area of competition between the two countries. In stark contrast to China, the United States is also expected to support ‘soft areas’ in the region, such as women’s empowerment, anti-corruption, the promotion of media freedom, civil society engagement and development. This is evident in US congressional legislation such as United States Innovation and Competition Act 2021, Honoring Oceania Act, Boosting Long-term US Engagement in the Pacific Act and Strategic Competition Act of 2021. Looking to the future, competition is likely to be a new normal for the United States and China in the Pacific.
Denghua Zhang is a research fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.