CHINA PERSISTENTLY PURSUES HEGEMONY IN SOUTH PACIFIC
On September 16 the Solomon Islands, one of the 14 small island nations in the southern Pacific, severed relations with Taiwan. Resorting to a notorious “money offensive,” Beijing has thus far enticed a total of ten small nations across the globe to switch recognition from Taiwan to China. Since President Tsai Wei-ing came to power in 2017, seven countries have severed relations with Taiwan, leaving just 15 countries in the world that still recognize it.
Beijing doesn’t want to see Ms Tsai, who refuses to acknowledge Taiwan as part of China, reelected in the next presidential election slated for January, 2020. At the same time, Beijing is committed to challenging American hegemony in the Pacific, with the goal of eventually excluding the US from the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Nearly eight decades ago, in 1942, Japanese and American forces engaged in a deadly six-month battle on Guadalcanal Island, where the Solomons’ capital of Honiara is located. Bereft of intelligence, food, weapons and ammunition, Japanese forces fought on heroically, suffering a heavy loss of precious lives. Many a reader knows that the Battle of Guadalcanal was the turning point of the war in the Pacific, compelling Japanese forces to be on the defensive until their defeat in 1945. Now the Chinese are adroitly maneuvering to put the former battleground under their control.
While the US is committed to defending the southern Pacific with its vital military base in Guam, China until recently entertained a plan to confine the US to the east of Hawaii, creating what they call “the first and second island chains” aimed at keeping the US military out of a conflict in waters China considers as its “core interests,” including Taiwan. The Chinese have now come up with a “third island chain” in order to extend their control beyond the western Pacific to the whole of the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese define the third island chain—a goal they vow to achieve by 2040—as a sea area they are committed to controlling, stretching north beyond 35 degrees south latitude and west beyond 165 degrees east longitude. Specifically, the sea area Beijing is eager to control is the part of the Pacific Ocean north of southern Australia, which the US Navy has reigned for decades, with countries like the Mariana Islands, Palau, and the Solomon Islands.
Cajoling Pacific Island Nations
In 2007, during a casual conversation between top American and Chinese navy officers, the Chinese side proposed that the Pacific Ocean be divided up between China and the US, with the US taking the eastern half, including Hawaii, and China the western half. Today, twelve years later, the Chinese are steadily moving toward this goal.
In order to achieve this strategic objective, Beijing has been cajoling the island nations with its notorious “dollar diplomacy.” A case in point is the Kingdom of Tonga, with slightly less than 110,000 inhabitants under the strong reign of its imperial family.
Beijing clearly has succeeded in developing a close relationship with Tonga’s royal family. According to an article in the April 9 edition of the Financial Times by Kathrin Hille, China paid Tongasat US$50 million in 2008 for parking a satellite in a geostationary orbit in the Polynesian kingdom’s skies above the equator.
China needed the orbit for its Beidou satellite PNT (positioning, navigation and timing) system—the Chinese equivalent of America’s GPS—for military purposes, such as missile guidance. By providing China what it wanted badly, Tonga became a valuable local point of China’s global military strategy. Hille wrote: “The bulk of the funds, half of which should have gone into the national budget, went to the company.”
Hille described Tongasat as being controlled by “Tonga’s Princess Royal,” Pilolevu. It is only natural to assume Beijing managed to win the heart of the princess with its favorite charm offensive, which must have included plenty of money.
“Tonga borrowed $114 million between 2008 and 2010 from Beijing,” wrote Hille. “Its debt to China is now equivalent to 43% of the country’s gross domestic product.” Obviously, paying back such a huge loan will be nearly impossible for a small and impoverished nation like Tonga. The situation reminds one of the sad story of Sri Lanka, which fell into the Chinese debt trap and was forced to hand over its Chinese-financed southern port of Hambantota to Beijing on a 99-year lease.
The Solomon Islands, with its newly established relations with China, is one of the largest island nations in the Pacific, inhabited by some 610,000 people. It has been hard hit by the full force of a rising China. Hille reported: “While Chinese immigrants have dominated the local retail sector since the first arrivals in the 19th century, their community has swelled to more than 5,000 people over the past few years and threatens to establish a dominant position in the local community.” They run a majority of Tonga’s retail stores, which provide virtually all of the consumer goods the islanders require.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is concentrating its investment in large-scale public works, including undersea cables—which I will touch on later—leaving Chinese-style infrastructure in its trail. As is customary, funds, technology, and work force are all imported from China. After completion of each project, Chinese workers stay on, become influential, and serve effectively as the new rulers of their communities.
Hille further reported: “The Solomon Islands government, meanwhile, caused shockwaves in Canberra in 2016 when it decided to replace an Australian-backed vender chosen in an open tender for a subsea cable linking it to Sydney with Huawei, the Chinese technology group several western governments see as a security threat. Canberra responded by building the undersea cable for the Solomon Islands itself and paying two-thirds of the cost.”
“But the Chinese company is not giving up,” noted Hille, adding: “Huawei is now offering to link up more distant parts of the country through a cable from Vanuatu.” Doesn’t this move make one suspect an obsession for world hegemony on the part of Huawei and the Chinese government behind it?
China’s Money Offensive
Only four island nations in the Pacific still maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan today—the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. But all of them are falling prey to China’s shrewd money offensive.
In cash-short Tuvalu, inhabited by 11,000 islanders, the parliament may replace its pro-Taipei prime minister any time soon, as it has difficulty drawing up a budget. Meanwhile, Palau has a population of 22,000, the Marshall Islands 53,000, and Nauru 14,000.
Each of these countries is very small, indeed. The people are gentle, with most of them living in poverty. But they are surrounded by maritime expanses that constitute the basis of free trade and free navigation for nations such as Japan, the US, and Australia. For reasons of national interests and international security, no nation in the free world can afford to give up these waters. We should never allow China to dominate these waters, and must make earnest efforts to block any attempt by China to control the small island nations that exist there.
Small and needy nations tend not to be too concerned about the suppression of freedom and democracy by the Chinese Communist Party. They are also afraid of being forced to choose between the US and China. Confronted by China’s might, their leaders and people do not even think that severing ties with Taiwan might one day come back to haunt them. The leaders, like their counterparts elsewhere, must survive and provide for their people. The path for the US and Japan to choose in challenging China will be to come up with measures superior to China’s in sustaining the survival of these states and enriching the lives of their people.
China is continuing to build and expand a net of greed around the globe. Japan would be wise to thwart Beijing’s ambitions by closely cooperating in ways quite different from China’s with members of the international community with whom it can share universal values. In light of rigid constitutional restraints, Japan is unable to fully utilize its military power, ranked sixth in the world (according to Global Firepower’s 2019 Military Strength Ranking). To make up for that, Japan must go on proposing rational, humane, and sensible ways of functioning as a responsible leader of the democratic world. Japan must at all costs be in the vanguard of a lasting fight to implement universal values.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 871 in the October 9, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)