Xi Jinping is building a track record of overreaching in his foreign policies. Chinese attempts to gain influence among the Pacific island states fit this increasingly familiar pattern.
Last year, the security agreement that Beijing reached with the Solomon Islands stunned the larger liberal democratic countries upon which the Pacific island states have traditionally relied for help: the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
However, a few months into 2023, we have a better perspective on China’s drive for influence in the Pacific. The full picture suggests Beijing’s attempt to make the Pacific a Chinese lake has stalled and will face strong counter-currents for the foreseeable future. Much of the opposition Beijing faces in the Pacific is stimulated by the Chinese government’s own actions — a classic characteristic of overreach.
The situation is underscored by a statement released this month by David Panuelo, the outgoing president of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Panuelo accuses the People’s Republic of China of bribery, bullying and “direct threats against my personal safety” as part of Beijing’s effort to bend FSM to the Chinese agenda. Panuelo is using his few remaining weeks in office to warn his fellow island states that the costs of partnership with Beijing outweigh the benefits.
To be sure, the year 2022 saw two important Chinese policy successes in the Pacific. One was the security agreement that Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed with Beijing. Although the official text was not made public, in a leaked draft the Solomons invite Chinese security forces to keep order on the islands and welcome regular visits by PRC warships.
Deployment of Chinese police would usurp Australia’s past role of supplying police reinforcements to the Solomons when needed. Routine stopovers by the Chinese Navy would help fulfill China’s objective of getting a de facto naval base in the Pacific, which could potentially restrict Australia’s freedom of strategic maneuver.
Secondly, China expanded its influence in Kiribati, which like the Solomons switched its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the PRC in 2019. In 2022, Kiribati made an exception to its strict Covid rules to allow a visit by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the 20 members of his delegation. Wang’s group and the Kiribati government signed 10 non-transparent trade deals.
Observers fear China is gaining exclusive fishing rights in the Kiribati-administered Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a marine preserve the size of California. In July 2022, Kiribati announced it would leave an important regional organization, the Pacific Islands Forum, isolating Kiribati from neighboring governments that might counsel against excess engagement with China. The PRC has proposed upgrading a World War II-era airstrip in Kiribati, raising concerns it could also serve as a Chinese military air base.
Overall, however, the PRC arguably lost ground in the Pacific in 2022 and 2023. Chinese infrastructure building in the Pacific reflects a larger problem with the Belt and Road Initiative, which is proving burdensome for Beijing as indications emerge it may be losing money on the total package of its global loans. The momentum of Chinese economic activity in the Pacific showed signs of slowing in 2022.
China’s development aid to the Pacific peaked in 2016 and has declined annually since then. Actual PRC performance in the delivery of assistance often falls short of initial promises. Some projects are proving difficult to finish. A 2017 deal in which China would build US$4 billion worth of roads in Papua New Guinea, for example, remains in limbo.
Along with the successes, Beijing has suffered some recent setbacks. In May 2022, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the region. PRC officials attempted to restrict local media access severely, much the same way the PRC government manages the press inside China.
Wang pitched a sweeping economic, security and training agreement to 10 Pacific states. It included affirmation of the PRC’s “one China” and “non-interference” principles. The response by the Pacific island governments was largely negative, prompting Wang to withdraw the proposal.
In January of this year, Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said his country was terminating an agreement whereby China trained Fijian police. “Our system of democracy and justice systems are different” from China’s, he said, “so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us,” such as Australia and New Zealand.
Largely in reaction to the China-Solomons agreement, the opponents of expanded PRC influence in the Pacific raised their game in 2022. Both the New Zealand and Australian governments increased their development aid to the region. Australia signed a security deal with Vanuatu to head off China from possibly doing the same.
US President Joe Biden hosted Pacific leaders at a US-Pacific Island Country Summit, a first. The US government announced $810 million in new US assistance to the region; plans to open embassies in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tonga; and the resumption of Peace Corps volunteer operations in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) said it will re-establish a mission in Fiji.
Meanwhile, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprised of the US, Japan, Australia and India, announced a Maritime Domain Awareness program to augment the capacity of Pacific island states to combat illegal fishing. This Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, announced in June 2022, aims to coordinate action among the US and its allies to counter what they consider negative PRC activity in the region.
The longer term does not look promising for China in the Pacific. The PRC is at a massive soft power disadvantage vis-à-vis the United States. Pacific island societies are traditionally Christian and favorably inclined toward democratic political systems.
China, of course, falls flat on both of those counts. Pacific islands have significant diaspora communities in the US, but not in China. Given that rising sea levels are a life-or-death issue for much of the Pacific, China earns no extra points for being the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases (though the US ranks second.)
Pacific islanders are aware that China’s interest in the Pacific is essentially exploitative. Increasing numbers of islanders are concerned about the downsides of engagement with China: environmental damage, indebtedness, lack of benefit to the local population, worsening of corruption in their countries’ political systems and loss of sovereignty.
Recent research reveals that university students in Papua New Guinea and Fiji — the future elite of their countries — mostly oppose taking additional Chinese aid.
Making non-transparent deals with China goes against the region’s political culture of seeking consensus among the “Pacific family.” The region does not want to become an arena of US-China conflict and tends to blame the new influx of Chinese influence for this danger more than it blames longstanding US influence.
Ironically, Xi-led China has acted more like a neocolonial power than the alleged neocolonial powers of the United States, Australia and New Zealand. These Western democracies now have more than a fair opportunity to shore up their historically close relationships with the Pacific island states.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.