In recent decades, China’s global influence has grown substantially. Part of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy strategy has been to invest heavily in remote and far-flung regions across the world, assembling a devoted band of small aid-dependent nations. One strategic area that has grasped China’s attention is the South Pacific, a region comprising 14 sovereign nations, seven territories, and less than 13 million people.
China has established a substantial and steadily growing footprint in the South Pacific by pumping millions of dollars of trade and aid into the local economies. This growing influence has recently induced the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to switch their allegiances from Taiwan to China. Today, there are only 14 nations that officially recognize Taiwan, many of which are small island nations. The South Pacific has historically been a diplomatic battleground for China and Taiwan, and China’s burgeoning influence in the region does not bode well for Taiwan.
Expansion in the South Pacific
Since 2006, China’s trade, aid, diplomatic, and commercial activity has been steadily growing. Aside from Papua New Guinea, two-way trade with China has overtaken that of Australia since 2013. The South Pacific is playing a role in the unfolding of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s plan to create a network of global trade by investing heavily in dozens of small countries across the globe. So far, 11 small South Pacific nations have signed onto the BRI.
China has been especially active in the Solomon Islands, making up 46% of the nation’s two-way trade. Last year, China signed a US $825 million deal to revive an abandoned gold mine, which also included the building of port facilities, roads, rail, and bridges on the island. China Sam, a large Chinese company with close ties to the government, recently attempted to lease the entire island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands for 75 years. The agreement was later ruled illegal by the nation’s attorney general.
The South Pacific is one of the most aid-dependent regions in the world, due to its vast remoteness and vulnerability to natural disasters. Between 2006 and 2017, China provided around US $1.5 billion in aid, grants, and loans in the region. China is now the second-largest donor in the South Pacific, in a region that has historically fallen under the Australian sphere of influence.
The South Pacific’s Strategic Significance
Making friends in the South Pacific is strategically important to China for a handful of reasons. For one, China has frequently sought to harness the support of small states in order to secure more votes in their favour in the United Nations General Assembly. Historically, maintaining a foothold in the region was crucial during World War II, allowing various powers to maintain supply lines and project military force. Similar incentives exist today as China seeks to expand its global military presence to attempt to rival the massive US military. Some fear that China will begin to take an increasingly aggressive military stance in the South Pacific, resembling their moves in the South China Sea.
Despite the remoteness of the South Pacific, it spans around 15% of the earth’s surface, including much of Australia’s maritime trade routes. China’s expanse into the region serves to offset Australia, a close ally of the US. Potential Chinese militarization of islands as little as 2,000 miles off Australian shore could catalyze more tension in the region, potentially inciting Australia to build up weapons.
Additionally, it’s notable that the smaller the country, the more comparative economic leverage China wields over them. South Pacific nations face numerous hardships; their small size and remoteness pose major developmental challenges and their vulnerability to natural disasters continues to increase as climate change worsens. They rely heavily on foreign aid and deeply value support from their economic partners, which factors greatly into China’s influence on the region. This has caused many to worry that China will engage in debt trap diplomacy, in which they lure underdeveloped countries into borrowing loans and then leveraging power over them if they’re unable to pay off their loans. Currently, Tonga owes around $108 million to China’s Export-Import bank, around 25% of their GDP.
In September of 2019, both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their allegiance from Taiwan to China, ending their relationships of 36 years and 16 years respectively. These shifts in diplomatic partnerships are a major testament to how much power China has in the region. Despite their long and fruitful alliances with Taiwan, simply put, China offered a better deal. When you’re a remote island nation whose prosperity rests largely at the whims of foreign donors, values and history often take the back-burner.
Under the ‘one China policy,’ countries can only have official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) or the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China). In 1949, the ROC government fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War as the Communist Party of China claimed PRC rule from Beijing. Since then, both the ROC and PRC claim to be the single legitimate China. Today, Taiwan has its own democratically-elected government and claims to be an independent nation, although Mainland China claims Taiwan is an integral province of China.
As China’s economic power and global presence has grown in recent decades, Taiwan has had many former allies switch their allegiance to China. The South Pacific has historically been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, who now has only 14 diplomatic partners. However, growing Chinese influence in the region could threaten this. When the Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Sogavare agreed to the switch, he signed five memoranda that agreed to participate in the BRI, secured a guarantee that China would build a multi-million dollar stadium in the country in addition to infrastructure like roads, bridges, and granted them the power to revive the country’s most lucrative Gold Ridge mine. There are also allegations that the Chinese government offered members of the Solomon Islands’ parliament considerable sums of money to vote to switch allegiance to Beijing.
Ultimately, the steady rate at which China’s money and influence is pouring into the South Pacific does not bode well for Taiwan. The decisions of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to make the switch to recognizing China sets a grim precedent for the future of Taiwan and its diplomatic partners. Chinese interest in the region does not appear to be dwindling anytime soon, especially as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased reliance on foreign aid.