With the first visit in four decades by a US Secretary of State to Fiji and plans to open an embassy in the Solomon Islands reportedly en route, Washington officially announced its “return” to the Pacific Islands last weekend. “It’s about building a free and open Indo-Pacific, defending it with democratic institutions, with transparency, with commitment to a rule-based order that we share.” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said at a joint press conference with acting Fijian Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum on 12 February.
Blinken spoke after a virtual meeting with 18 Pacific Island executives to reassure them about Washington’s involvement in the region. “This is a long-term strategy because we see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific. It is as simple and fundamental as that,” Blinken added.
The day before Blinken’s visit, The White House unveiled its new Indo-Pacific strategy document clarification of the calculations that inform the Biden administration’s increased interest in the wider region. “This intensified US focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo – Pacific is facing increasing challenges, especially from the People’s Republic of China,” the document explains. “China’s coercion and aggression extends across the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific,” it added, citing examples including Beijing’s economic press campaign against Australia and its “bullying of neighbors in the eastern and southern China seas.”
The Pacific Islands in particular have become a major battleground for the two rivals’ competition due to their strategic value to both countries.
Over the past decade, Beijing has made significant inroads into the Pacific Islands through a combination of high-level diplomatic engagement, bilateral economic partnerships and infrastructure projects under the Belt and Roads Initiative. While China’s development aid may have peaked in 2016 and declined steadily since then, its loans and subsidies accounted for 8 per cent of all foreign aid to the region between 2011 and 2017, dwarfing the US, which stood at a paltry 0.3 per cent in the same period, according to data from Sydney. -based Lowy Institute.
And while their economies are relatively small, the Pacific island nations nonetheless have an oversized military and diplomatic value for China, which has successfully leveraged its economic leverage and geographical proximity to serve its geopolitical goals. In 2019, China convinced two of the six island nations – Kiribati and the Solomon Islands – that previously had formal ties with Taiwan to shift diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The two diplomatic turns, which took place within a week in a row, reduced the number of Taiwan’s international allies from 17 to 15.
And given their location along Washington’s Pacific island defense chain, establishing a military base on one of the islands could allow China to block US military forces in the region in the event of an invasion of Taiwan by retired CEO Peter Cowell, a former Australian Navy Officer and Chairman of the IntSAR Admiralty Board, explained in a recent webinar.
The strategic importance of the Pacific Islands is partly why some Chinese funded Infrastructure projects have set off the alarm bells in Canberra, including a 2020 agreement with Papua New Guinea to build a $ 146 million fishing facility on Australia’s doorstep. Some other Pacific island nations have also become more cautious about deepening their partnerships with China because of vigilance over the accompanying political conditions and concerns about so-called “debt-trap diplomacy.”
But while Washington’s increased involvement in the region is seen as a welcome development, the growing geopolitical rivalry could be a double-edged sword for the island nations, especially when they are pressured to take sides.
“For the Pacific Island elites, the presence of China gives them more leeway to secure themselves with the United States and other traditional powers and take advantage of better aid and investment agreements,” Graeme Smith, a researcher at the Australian National University, told World Political review. This includes the construction of submarine communication cables and port infrastructure upgrades. “But in other areas, such as technology choices, they may face binary choices that will be harder to navigate,” he added, citing as an example the choice between China’s Beidou satellite positioning system and the US-powered Global Positioning System or GPS. .
The island nations could also expect to feel pressure to formally shift their diplomatic recognition to Beijing, take steps to further isolate Taiwan and support Beijing’s stance on controversial issues, including the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The lobbying campaign can also extend to international fora such as the UN, where Beijing expects these countries to provide their support on key issues relating to China’s core interests. For those who are economically dependent on China, such as the Solomon Islands, it would be difficult to push back Beijing’s influence, Smith added.
The geopolitical competition has also served to weaken democracy in many Pacific island nations, including Fiji, Biman Prasad, the leader of Fiji’s opposition National Federation, told the World Politics Review. China, for example, stepped in to support Fiji’s military junta following a 2006 coup widely condemned by the international community, including a round of sanctions imposed on the interim military government of New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
Although other major powers have stepped up their engagement with countries such as Fiji in an attempt to offset China’s influence, Prasad noted that “traditional democratic country donors have tended to ignore practices of good democracy, such as media freedom, human rights, transparency and accountability.”
A fairer partnership, some Pacific observers argue, should focus on the needs and interests of the people of the islands themselves, which neither Beijing nor Washington has so far been willing to do.
“The United States still needs to establish a deep and nuanced understanding of the region as a unit in itself, rather than as a subset of ‘Indo-Pacific,'” Tess Newton Cain, project manager for the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, told the World Politics Review . “The leaders of the Pacific have been making it clear for some time that they do not see themselves or want to be seen as farmers on a geostrategic chessboard,” she added. “Nor do they see their countries or their communities as prizes to be fought for.”
As Amatlain Elizabeth Kabua, Marshall Islands’ UN Ambassador, said in a speech last year on the high-level attention that the great powers have given the region in recent years, “We are concerned about being caught in the middle of a bad tug of war.”
“While we welcome the commitment,” she continued, “we have the motivation to distinguish between someone who is interested in building a lasting partnership to help us grow as a people and as a nation that we welcome. and encourages, or a person who is interested, in our area only for their own expansion. ”
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China Note-Taker writes anonymously for personal security reasons.