In April 2022, a small country in the Pacific Ocean caused quite an international uproar. The Solomon Islands, a sovereign nation made up of hundreds of individual islands, ruffled feathers when its government announced its intention to foster a security agreement with China. The agreement would allow China to dock its ships at ports on the islands, however, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands adamantly reassured the public the pact would not permit China to build military bases.
Nevertheless, Western nations like the United States, Australia, and New Zealand quickly jumped to oppose the move, asserting the agreement encouraged “militarization of the region” and threatened peace and sovereignty at large. Other Pacific Island countries voiced their concerns over the agreement, with the president of Micronesia warning how the agreement could place the Pacific Islands in the crossfire between the U.S. and China.
The Solomon Islands isn’t the only nation in the Pacific to entertain a closer alliance with China. In May 2022, meetings were held between Chinese officials and representatives from 10 Pacific Island countries to discuss building stronger ties in trade, travel, security, and more. While China was ultimately unsuccessful in wrangling total support from Pacific leaders, it has made some substantial diplomatic gains as evidenced by the Solomon Islands agreement. More importantly, for inhabitants of the Pacific Island nations, China’s growing influence in the region simultaneously brings positive developments and poses dangers. To understand what those developments and dangers could look like, let’s dive into the historical significance of foreign influence in the region and the present-day economic struggles experienced by Pacific Islanders.
Historically Caught in the Crossfire
During World War II, the Pacific Islands were extremely important to both the Allied and Axis forces because of their strategic location – both sides used the islands as fueling stations and to store much-needed supplies. Particularly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S.’ subsequent decisions to join the war, the Pacific Islands and the Indigenous peoples inhabiting them were caught in the crossfire. The U.S. launched a bombing campaign aimed to wipe out the Japanese forces stationed on the Pacific Islands. This assault gained the Americans the upper hand but in doing so absolutely devastated local populations. Aside from the violence, Pacific Islanders found themselves being displaced and running out of food as both American and Japanese forces used their land to shelter and feed themselves.
The war waged in the Pacific Islands brought the same social and physical upheaval and devastation experienced in Europe. Thousands of Pacific Islanders lost their lives, which dealt a harsh blow to the already small population. However, compared to small European countries like Belgium and Greece which received financial support from the Marshall Plan many of the smaller Pacific nations were not afforded similar attention or compensation.
What’s more, despite involuntarily lending their lands to the war effort, the Pacific Islands were not even granted independence by their Allied colonizers. Even now, some islands like French Polynesia and Guam are not fully independent, instead being classified as “overseas territories.” With all this in mind, it is not surprising that many Pacific Islanders may still be skeptical of Western ambitions on their lands today.
But where did China stand in all this? Chinese-Pacific contact was mostly limited to trade, but in the late 19th century that economic relationship began to grow. A wave of migration occurred in the 1860s as Chinese laborers, “recruited by colonial labor companies,” were brought over to the Pacific islands for harvesting work on plantations or forestry activity. This would influence future diplomatic relations as initial Chinese consulates were opened on Pacific islands. During the Cold War, while the U.S. and the Soviet Union focused little on building relationships with Pacific Island nations, China opted for stronger political and economic engagement in comparison. From there, many Pacific Island nations decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China over the Republic of China (Taiwan). This would set the stage for China to become a favorable partner in aid to Pacific Islands as it grew into an economic powerhouse in the 21st century.
Aid and Economic Dependency in the Pacific
The legacy of colonialism and extraction in the Pacific islands coupled with the small population sizes has meant that today, most of the islands are reliant on foreign aid to sustain their economies. The Pacific Islands receive foreign support through grants and loans from wealthy countries like New Zealand and Australia seeking to expand their influence, although these countries often do not provide financial support for the sake of aid itself and instead to develop economic partnerships. For example, the U.S. dedicates nearly $2 billion USD in foreign aid every year to the region. However, not all the islands have experienced the same rates of economic growth due to the different local resources available – larger nations like Papua New Guinea have the benefit of greater natural resources while smaller ones like Tonga and Tuvalu have to either sacrifice livable land or miss out on growing important crops for export like vanilla and coconuts.
An Uneven Trade Balance between China and the Pacific Islands
With these economic obstacles in mind, China, whether just for its own benefit or not, has become a major investment partner of various Pacific Island governments, funding infrastructure and increasing trade opportunities with fewer strings attached. Multiple Pacific Island countries have been included in the Belt and Road Initiative, although they have not been the focal point until recently as Central Asia and Eastern Europe had been the focus of investment in China. Investment ties have been bilateral in the Pacific, between China and one Pacific island government. Only recently has China been collectively meeting with all representatives of Pacific Island governments.
However, Chinese investment, like other foreign investments, does come with a cost. Many of the resources that are found in the Pacific are extracted at a rate that is not sustainable with China being the main importer of natural resources – ranging from minerals, logs, and fuels – from the Pacific Islands. While this allows the resource-rich Pacific nations more negotiating power – given China’s need for resources to produce finished goods – business development and resource extraction can contribute to environmental degradation and use up livable land. What’s more, many of the Pacific Islanders working in these extractive industries have no ownership or say over the resources, and see marginal profits compared to the foreign companies leading the projects. With this in mind, some Pacific Island governments have placed bans on new mining and oil extraction on their islands and the waters surrounding them.
Another important relationship that China has with the Pacific Island nations is based on tourism. In 2018, the Pacific Islands hosted over 100,000 Chinese visitors and tourists. These numbers will most likely continue to sustain themselves, which some may welcome since the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically decreased international tourism. However, increases in tourism would also come at a cost to land use if more land is developed for hotels and resorts. With this in mind, developing a strategy to focus on the sustainable development of important industries rather than the overall growth of a nation’s economy has been advised. For example, China and the nation of Kiribati have plans to work on upgrading a former airstrip for tourist use which would be better than using undeveloped land elsewhere in Kiribati.
Fighting Against the Climate and Health Crises
Much of the crucial aid administered to the Pacific Islands has been dedicated to healthcare materials and disaster preparedness. Since the pandemic, one priority, in particular, was increased medical supplies such as vaccines and masks to the Pacific Island nations since they had limited supplies, to begin with. The lack of economic resources and the remote nature of the Pacific Islands are very real barriers when providing healthcare to the region’s inhabitants. In particular, remoteness leads to increased vulnerability to disaster relief for Pacific Islands. Disasters such as hurricanes, tropical flooding, and earthquakes are amongst the most common to devastate the Pacific Islands. Not to mention, the Pacific Islands have been amongst the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and have to regularly contend with the challenges like safety and water access that come with living on the islands.
One of the current climate adaptation methods is China’s decision to build a “Pacific Reserve of Emergency Supplies” meant to facilitate response and rescue support for nations within the Pacific. Investments and projects like these that address environmental disasters and health issues have been popular among many Pacific Islanders when they do not come at the cost of enormous loans or loss of lands to mining or tourism industries.
Choosing the Better of Two Evils for Survival?
Through these initiatives, China has established itself as an important partner. Its investments bring new energy to the Pacific Islands at a time when they are critically at risk from climate change and its related health and economic consequences. The Pacific Islands ultimately are in search of support as they tackle these issues. It would be wise to understand why Chinese investment and aid are so important. This is not to say that China has selfless reasons for building economic connections in the Pacific islands – China certainly is looking to get something in return. Yet, it’s not productive to demonize Pacific Islanders and their governments for growing stronger ties with China, especially in light of the historical exploitation and violence wrought by Western powers. While we might argue that Chinese money comes with just as many strings attached as American money, it’s no one’s place to tell people on the front lines of the climate crisis how they should survive.
Edited by Chelsea Bean