WITH THE UKRAINE WAR IN MIND, CHINA TARGETS THE SOUTH PACIFIC
This is China’s way: find a power vacuum and exploit it to expand its own sphere of influence. But brute force does not always work.
This was my conclusion following Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to the South Pacific. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping have vowed a “friendship without limits,” but the situation has changed with Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. China has been forced to rethink its plans to invade Taiwan, and has instead turned its attention to the South Pacific.
Wang first visited Solomon Islands (population 680,000) during his 10-day tour of the region. On April 19, China announced that it had signed a security agreement with the country. The United States and Australia were apparently caught off guard, but looking back, we can see China had been waiting for this opportunity with careful preparation.
In 2019, when Prime Minister Sogavale of the Solomon government broke with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China, the Australian State Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that support of $US 500 million (¥55 billion) was passed from the Chinese Communist Party to the Sogavale administration. At that point, China had already in essence bought the leadership of Solomon’s government. As a result, it can be said that Solomon, the poorest country in the South Pacific, sold the future of the nation to China for only US$500 million.
All South Pacific island nations are poor and weak. China is far more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior, at least economically, in the South Pacific than it is in the South China Sea. The populations are smaller and the armies almost nonexistent. There are also fewer wealthy people. There is a lot of room for China’s strong cash diplomacy to be effective.
Another Chinese weapon is disinformation. When Solomon Islands decided to cut off Taiwan, it was the Malaita provincial government that opposed Prime Minister Sogavale and demanded his resignation. Unruly demonstrators in the capital of Honiara burnt buildings and plundered stores. The Chinese Communist Party spread the disinformation that the riots were nefariously staged by Australia, the United States, and Taiwan. When the Australian government sent a small peacekeeping force at the request of the Solomon government, China claimed this was a “direct military intervention” made at the request of the United States. The power of the Chinese media in a small island country is immense.
Success in the South China Sea
China’s aim is to separate the island nations from the United States and Australia. In this visit, Wang told President Kiribati and Foreign Minister Marmau:
”The United States and its associates are concentrating their efforts on schemes that impede China’s development. In essence, they do not want to see unity and cooperation among developing countries. They do not want to see powers other than the West succeed in the world… They don’t want to see the strengthening of China. China is rushing to realize joint development with developing countries and hopes to work hand in hand to eliminate historical inequalities.”
China has trapped Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, and others in debt under the Belt and Road Initiative. It will try to take advantage of the island nations of the South Pacific in a similar way. Despite this, Kiribati, Samoa, Niue, and other countries in the region say that China’s core interests align with those of developing countries, including those of the South Pacific. They give warm words of welcome to Foreign Minister Wang, saying they “will firmly implement the principles of China” and “firmly support the construction of a global community.”
Blake Johnson, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Center, asserts that China has taken every opportunity to counteract the Australian government’s contributions to the island nations.
”The signing of the security agreement between China and Solomon was announced on the same day as other important announcements between the Australian and Solomon governments––deployment of a second patrol boat on the east coast of Solomon, completion of a radio network for disaster preparedness, and an additional budget to alleviate the economic downturn caused by the Corona disaster. ”
The timing was likely not a coincidence. Johnson points out that the shocking news of the conclusion of the security agreement reduced the attention that should have been given to the announcement of beneficial new projects for the Solomon people.
The Chinese Communist Party is likely aiming to reproduce the success it has experienced in the South China Sea. They would like to establish a sphere of influence in the South Pacific with an accompanying military infrastructure. Securing rich seabeds and fishing resources would also be an important goal for China, which has 1.4 billion people to feed.
Looking at the current international geopolitical situation, it is not surprising that President Xi Jinping sees an opportunity. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine continues to preoccupy the US and Europe. China’s movements in the South Pacific have become a lesser concern.
There have also been a number of changes in leadership: Trump to Biden in the US; Abe to Suga to Kishida in Japan; and Morrison to Albanese in Australia. China may be thinking that the pressure on them has begun to ease.
On May 30, Wang held an online “China-Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers’ Meeting” with foreign ministers from ten island nations. Originally security agreements for all ten countries were to be signed at this meeting, but this was canceled at the last minute, with Micronesia stating it did not wish to “invite a new Cold War.” For a country like China that values “face” so highly, this was a rare development.
In light of China’s actions, it has been reported that the Biden administration wants to hold a US-China summit, and that Xi Jinping is receptive to such a proposal. In fact, on May 19th on a presidential flight to South Korea, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if President Biden and President Xi talk again within the next few weeks.”
However, there is no reason to think that China’s path to expansion in the South Pacific will be slowed down due to the possibility of talks between US and Chinese leaders. China has come to the South Pacific, and there is no doubt it will seek to expand its presence. If the United States, Japan, and Australia do not prevent China’s growing influence, there will be serious consequences. That is a fact.
Sentiment toward China in the South Pacific island nations is not always favorable. In Solomon, for example, there is strong opposition to Prime Minister Sogavale’s pro-Chinese policy, as mentioned earlier. If next year’s presidential election is properly conducted, it is expected that a change of government will occur. In that case, there is a good chance that diplomatic relations with Taiwan will be restored. In order to ensure a fair election, Japan should advocate the formation of an international election monitoring team.
Climate change is a major concern for the South Pacific island nations; they are also anti-nuclear. China, which places a lesser priority on the environment and has an aggressive nuclear weapons program, does not fare well when judged on these issues. There is a clear opportunity for Japan to provide high-quality support in these areas in competition with China.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,002 in the June 9, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)