Despite accounting for just 11 million people, the Pacific Island region is of utmost strategic importance.
The Pacific’s larger players, like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, have long acknowledged the significance and magnitude of the region’s exclusive economic territory — an area that matches the size of Europe and Africa combined.
But, while the Pacific has traditionally been influenced by Australia, the United States, and its allies, times are changing.
Over the past few years, China has worked hard to become a bigger presence and create economic and political relationships with the region’s 23 sovereign states. In 2017, the Asian superpower pledged a massive $4 billion in aid loans, against just $815 million by Australia in direct grants during the same year.
Many Oceania geopolitical experts believe Australia and China are now in a battle to one-up the other to hold onto, or secure, power and influence in the region. Below, we explore the implications of China flexing its economic muscles and how a battle for control could have long-lasting effects on Pacific Islanders living in extreme poverty.
What’s Happening In 2022?
In mid-April, the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China.
A leaked draft of the agreement, which was adamantly opposed by Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States, shows a clause that allows Chinese warships to dock on the islands. The section sparked fears by the international community that China may now seek to build naval bases throughout the country, claims the Chinese embassy has rebuked.
Newly-appointed Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong — who was shadow minister at the time of the statement — said the China-Solomon Islands deal was “the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II.”
Then, on May 30, China offered an unparalleled regional trade and security agreement to the entire Pacific region.
Ministers across the region reached an agreement and declined Beijing's offer.
The deal — which was set to encompass free trade, police cooperation, and support in the aftermath of disasters — was strongly opposed by certain Pacific leaders, particularly President of Palau Surangel Whipps Jr, over a lack of transparency and fears the agreement could lead to increased political hostility.
"We want to have peace and security in the region, and we don't want to go through what we went through in World War II, so when we see these kinds of activities it does raise a concern for us,” Whipps Jr said, according to Australia’s ABC publication.
Australia, in response, promised to "bring new energy and more resources to the Pacific."
What Impact Does This Have on International Development?
There are fears that financial injections in the Pacific by Australia and China are leaving island nations as pawns in a game of chess — with the two major powers simply working to counter the other, as opposed to spending in a way that genuinely favors the interests of Pacific Island people and places.
"What we really have to be careful about is that countries aren’t, for the purposes of geostrategic competition, throwing money at Pacific Island countries in ways that they can’t absorb,” Bryce Wakefield, the national executive director at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, told Global Citizen. “Australia, New Zealand, and others around the region have had quite a good record of making sure that aid disbursements and projects are transparent and that they go to targeted communities where the aid is needed.”
Wakefield continued: “A lot of Chinese spending in the region — and there has been spending prior to this recent strategic competition — has been spent on projects whose utilities are questionable. We certainly, as the countries that have a long relationship in the region, do not want to be getting into that game.”
President of the Chinese Association of Australian Studies Chen Hong, however, says the “China threat” is unfactual.
“The slightest effort of fact-checking would show that the security cooperation between China and the Pacific Island countries aims to maintain social order as a way to guarantee a stable business environment and to prevent riots and violent disturbance,” Hong told the Global Times.
Why Is It Important for the Region to Have Its Own Autonomy and Voice?
The region is among the poorest and most climate-vulnerable in the world, with a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. For years, leaders throughout the region have said that climate change is its largest security threat, as opposed to military tensions between China and Australia.
According to Wakefield, the past few weeks have clearly demonstrated that “Pacific Island nations do have autonomy.”
"People often stereotype the Pacific Islands, saying they're willing simply to take aid when it's offered, and that they can be pressured,” he told Global Citizen. “The past week has shown us that they do have concerns about the encroachment into their region by larger powers. They do have concerns that geo-economic or geostrategic competition could get out of hand.”
Wakefield continued: “They take their interests, foremost of which is climate change, into the conversation.”
The prioritization of Pacific interests by Pacific leaders must be able to continue unchallenged, Wakefield said. The global community cannot allow the region’s independence, freedom, and sovereignty to be burdened by loans and influence from wealthy nations. This, in turn, will ensure that the urgent humanitarian priorities for the region — like improving healthcare, access to education, and future protection from the effects of climate change — remain front and center.