In Depth

China’s fight for the Pacific

Beijing’s influence grows as Papua New Guinea requests refinancing help

The South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands has announced that it intends to end its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in favour of mainland China.

The shift marks a diplomatic victory for Beijing, which is attempting to turn former allies of Taipei against the breakaway nation, and will also intensify the ongoing trade war between China and Western nations with a presence in the South Pacific.

Announcing the decision to the Solomon Islands’ Foreign Relations Committee this week, Communication and Aviation Minister Peter Shanel Agovaka said that after four decades of independence and a long-term alliance with Taiwan, “it is time that we make new friends”.

“Our new relationship will deal with a One China policy - a One China policy that recognizes only Beijing as the official government administration,” he continued, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Reuters.

As the news agency notes, Beijing regards Taiwan as “a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties” . Only 17 countries currently recognise the island nation, which broke away from China in the late 1940s following a brutal civil war.

The Solomon Islands had favoured recognition of Taiwan since 1983, but its ties with Taipei have come into question after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare established a task force earlier this year to re-evaluate the relationship. Sogavare also sent a team of ministers and a private secretary to Beijing last month.

The move is thought to be designed to “improve the country’s economic prospects”, says Australia’s ABC News Australia. The South China Morning Post notes that the shift in allegiance comes amid a major charm offensive by China in the South Pacific.

“China is now the top trading partner and a major aid provider to most South Pacific nations, and its growing presence – mainly through big infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and ports as well as aid programmes – has raised concern in Washington,” the newspaper says.

The Solomons have made no secret of desire for Chinese money. Communications Minister Agovaka this week told the Foreign Relations Committee that during his recent trip to China, he “told the vice foreign minister that Solomon Islands is attracted to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” and that the “Solomon Islands view the BRI as [a] blueprint of a new era”.

The BRI is a strategy adopted by the Chinese government involving enormous infrastructure investments worldwide, and is widely regarded as a means for Beijing to exert its influence overseas.

“I believe Solomon Islands as small as we are can still be part of this major strategy propeller by this great initiative by BRI as outlined by the Chinese president,” Agovaka added.

So just what is China up to in the South Pacific?

What’s China doing in the South Pacific?

Until recently, Australia has been the primary outside investor in health, education and governance for developing Pacific island nations.

But despite years of investment in development, “economic growth is slow”, says CNN.

In two analyses published in 2003 and 2010 respectively, Australian economist Helen Hughes concluded that “aid has failed in the Pacific”.

China is taking a different approach. While Australia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on vaccination programmes, medicine and health education, the Asian superpower’s biggest spending is on infrastructure projects. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, China recently completed a $85m (£68.1m) road upgrade. Beijing has also loaned Vanuatu $80m (£64m) to build a wharf.

Last year, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the South Pacific, questioned the benefits of such projects, accusing China of burdening poorer countries with hefty loans for “useless” projects that “go nowhere”, according to ABC News.

“Tiny nations that have enjoyed China’s largesse have often found it impossible to repay the loans, a practice that has been described as debt trap diplomacy,” adds The Times.

However, many Pacific countries are welcoming Chinese investment. During a press conference earlier this year, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape said his country was open to investors from any nation.

“Whether they are from [China], or Australia, or right across the world, is inconsequential and irrelevant to us,” he said.

Why the Pacific Islands?

Although the Pacific Islands are all self-governed, their poor economic growth makes it one of the world’s most aid-dependent regions. More than 20% of the population are unable to afford all their basic needs, according to the World Bank.

Nevertheless, several things are drawing Beijing to the region, including the potential to establish strategic military bases, a ready supply of raw materials ripe for extraction, and the political benefits of exacting influence over nations who vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

There is also another major geopolitical advantage to be gained from wooing the Pacific Island nation. Six of the handful of countries that recognise Taiwan as an independent nation are Pacific island nations, but “five of them will hold elections by next year”, says the Nikkei Asian Review. Chinese-friendly administrations might be persuaded to switch their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, a major step forward in China’s goal of isolating Taiwan on the world stage.

Beijing maintains that its investment is benign, however.

“China, based on equal, mutually beneficial, open and sustainable principles, keeps providing genuine assistance to Pacific Island countries without any political attachment,” said a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

How had Australia reacted?

In July, Australia announced plans to create a Pacific-centric military unit, in what has seen as a sign of the nation’s determination to “undercut Chinese influence in the region”, reports The Daily Telegraph.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the unit, to be known as the Pacific Support Force, would include an expeditionary training force to work with key regional neighbours including Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, The Times reports. The new force will also provide humanitarian and peacekeeping services.

Amid growing concerns about Beijing’s encroachment into the Pacific, “the move sends a message to China that Australia has no intention of turning its back on its regional neighbours”, says the newspaper.

Since become PM last summer, Morrison has made the Pacific Islands a bigger priority than did his predecessors. Indeed, despite reining in overseas aid in general, his government unveiled a AUS$2bn (£1.12bn) infrastructure fund for the Pacific region last November.

“Australia cannot take its influence in the Southwest Pacific for granted,” Morrison said at the time. “And sadly, I think too often we have.”

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