Updated: Oct 9
The Pacific Islands are a group of 14 nations, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and many others, situated in the tropical region of the Pacific Ocean between Asia, Australia and the Americas.
Image Graphics by Team Geostrata
These countries have historically been crucial for the colonial powers to unleash their strength and strategic skill who engaged in rivalry to seize control of these Pacific Island nations.
As an illustration, the UK, US, and France carried out nuclear tests in these territories which is a probable corroboration of the influence these powers wield in the region. They boast of having some of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the world while being some of the smallest and least populous states.
Due to the potential for utilising the abundance of fisheries, energy, minerals, and other marine resources found in such zones, large EEZs translate into enormous economic potential. States with EEZs greater than India include Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Geopolitically, these Pacific Island countries make up a sizable portion of the Pacific area and are located in the middle of its maritime lanes, thriving political, military, and diplomatic interests.
THE CHINESE INFLUENCE-
What precipitated China's unexpected resurgence of interest in the Pacific Island Nations?
China has diverse and growing interests designed to give it a decisive tactical advantage over the historically favoured position of the West. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean between Asian littoral waters in the west, Guam in the north, Hawaii in the east, and Australia and New Zealand in the south and southwest, is where the Pacific Islands are located and has not been an exception to China's rising expansionist ambitions in recent decades. China aspires to establish an effective Blue Water Navy through these island nations situated outside of China's First Island Chain, to significantly advance its maritime interests.
Additionally, China sought to undermine QUAD's strategic rise as a powerful player in the Indo-Pacific, by urging depolarisation of the region, building global consensus and support for multinational organisations like the UN to fulfil its ambitious global goals and garner benevolent support in international organisations and expand its voter base. Increased access to these PICs could be used by China as a surveillance tool to advance its regional intelligence gathering. The West's prolonged dominance in the Pacific may hinder the Chinese desire to annex its perceived breakaway area.
China and the USA are now engaged in great power competition in the area. China has made significant investments in South-South collaboration over the years to advance its strategic dominance, global influence, and cultural and economic ties.
Through its Belt and Road initiative, China has been making cumulative investments in infrastructural developments. China has spent tens of billions of dollars building vital infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, schools, and other critical infrastructures.
The "One China Policy" has been recognised by 10 of the 14 island governments in the region, and China has significantly extended its presence there. According to several statistics, the trade volume between China and a select group of PIC nations climbed over 13% and more than 30 times between 1992 and 2021.
Although the total amount of aid from China is far less than that from its long-standing traditional allies, it is important to underline the lack of concern for how the aid is provided. China's aid and assistance to other countries are to fund public facilities to help the recipient countries' economies.
Together with other island nations, China is boosting its military and defence cooperation. Bilateral talks between military officials from the PLA and Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu are arranged. Defence leaders from the Caribbean and Pacific Islands attend biannual seminars hosted by PLA, and even many PICs' military officers receive training from PLA. $5.5 million worth of military equipment was sent to Papua New Guinea.
A contentious secret deal establishing a security alliance and affirming the presence of Chinese forces in the Pacific islands was signed by China and the Solomon Islands in April 2022 putting Beijing's regional aspirations in the proper perspective.
China wants to counter the long legacy of engagement with traditional partners by establishing a regional security architecture under its leadership. China's bold ambitions, nevertheless, were met with opposition, prompting apprehension in many island countries.
China's Five Year Action Plan on Shared Development for the Pacific Islands (2022–2026) acknowledged the concerns but failed to get a broad agreement in areas like law enforcement, cyber security, and maritime surveillance. Samoa and Fiji, for example, rejected China's common development visions because they felt that non-traditional security threats such as climate change, health crises, unemployment, and inflation required more attention. Fiji even agreed to the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that impedes China's aspirations.
The Federated States of Micronesia are apprehensive of China's interference in the governance of the island nations and its key industries, which could lead to inevitable power competition among the traditional partners and China. The multilateral connection between island states and the USA may not be compatible with China's power calculations, for instance, the "Compact of Free Association" between the FSM and the USA, granting financial incentives to these island countries in exchange for the US military receiving unrestricted access to their land, sea, and air routes.
Analysts claim that China's long-term objective in the region is to develop a military presence in the South Pacific. Through development aid and high-level visits, China is putting a lot of effort into fostering bilateral connections with Pacific leaders that see political, economic, or personal benefits in supporting Beijing. Although its traditional partners such as the USA, UK, and Australia have been heavily involved in strategic alliances with Pacific Island Countries to create crucial infrastructure to increase their long-term economic and strategic resilience, it is difficult for China to compete with the US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
China would need real negotiations to revise its strategy to advance its ambitious goals. More victories might be expected to follow, like, hypothetically, the signing of a crucial BRI deal or other allies of Taiwan altering their diplomatic recognition.
Looking at the bigger picture, Beijing's adversaries in the Pacific must hone their engagement strategies to lessen the existential threats posed by climate change, pandemic recovery, and
economic policies to prioritise the needs of Pacific Islanders ultimately allowing China to be comfortably observed in the distance.
BY AVIKA BHARDWAJ