Britain's Prince Charles, takes a drink with Chief Sine Mao Tirsupe, President of the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, during a visit to the Chief's nakamal, as he visits the South Pacific island of Vanuatu,  April 7, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/Steve Parsons
Britain's Prince Charles, takes a drink with Chief Sine Mao Tirsupe, President of the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, during a visit to the Chief's nakamal, as he visits the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, April 7, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/Steve Parsons

Western countries will step up economic contacts with Pacific nations to lever them away from China’s spreading sphere of influence, overtures to be backed by increased military surveillance and intelligence operations.

As unease grows over Beijing’s strategic objectives and aggressive aid program in the maritime region, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are leading efforts to counter it with a soft power offensive of their own.

Leaders of the three countries and Canada agreed on the response at high-level security talks during the recent Commonwealth heads of government summit in London. They are all partners with the United States in the “Five Eyes” defense arrangement, which shares intelligence data.

That was seen somewhat visibly by Britain’s Crown Prince Charles’ visit to Vanuatu – center of a new controversy that China aims to build a naval facility on the Pacific island – on April 7.

The economic focus of the countermove is an acknowledgment that China has been able to make inroads in the region by filling a vacuum which probably dates back to the 2006 coup in Fiji, when Australia and New Zealand imposed a range of sanctions. Fiji strongman Frank Bainimarama turned to China instead.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama (R) with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, May 16, 2017. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

Sensing a diplomatic opening, President Xi Jinping made the first official visit to Fiji by a Chinese leader in 2014 and thereafter launched an aggressive Pacific aid program. China is now the key source of aid for the island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

Aid diplomacy in the region has traditionally been driven by the rivalry between China and Taiwan, with Pacific nations attempting to play the two countries off against each other for ever larger handouts.

But it has evolved since into a platform for exploring new markets for Chinese goods and encouraging the country’s state-owned enterprises to invest their reserves abroad.

Pioneering China’s charge into the Pacific is the fishing industry, which — like much of Beijing’s geopolitical agenda — has both economic and military aspects. Chinese fishing boats deployed to Pacific islands are sending tons of seafood back to the motherland but also collecting signals intelligence.

Last year China built the Pacific Marine Industrial Zone, a sprawling site with capacity for 10 fish canning factories and 25,000 employees in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest Pacific neighbor. Beijing picked up the US$74 million bill for the facility on condition that it used Chinese construction companies.

Mining firm Tianrui Group is setting up a fish farm and seafood processing plant on Hao Island, in French Polynesia, through a subsidiary, Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods, after Beijing paid substantial financial aid and subsidies to Tahiti government leaders.

President of Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods Wang Cheng (2nd L) and President of French Polynesia Edouard Fritch (2nd R) arrive at the airport of Hao, May 6, 2015. Photo: AFP/Gregory Boissy

However, China is now enveloped in a row over a consulate building, complete with a satellite dish, that it is accused of occupying illegally.

In Vanuatu, meanwhile, China has massively extended Santo Island’s Luganville Wharf to accept larger vessels; there is speculation that these could be fishing factory ships, but destroyers could dock there just as easily.

Australian intelligence is believed to have leaked the Vanuatu story to put a spotlight on China’s activities, but reports that the isolated dock will be the basis for a military base seem exaggerated.

China has few economic assets in the region to defend and probably doesn’t need a Pacific base anyway.

The People’s Liberation Army is using Chinese Pacific projects to install a network of satellite ground stations and listening posts that can monitor the movement of Chinese exports and keep tabs on Western military assets.

Some of its tactics, however, are more brazen. China’s Huawei Technologies Co was contracted by the Solomon Islands to build an undersea high-speed internet cable to Australia that Canberra feared might be exploited by Chinese intelligence.

Australia blocked the cable from its domestic fiber-optic network and then convinced the Solomons to push Huawei out.

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) at Parliament House in Canberra on March 24, 2017. Photo: AFP/David Gray

Five Eyes defense partners are monitoring signals from Chinese fishing vessels and land facilities through four geostationary satellites over the Indian Ocean that collect microwave, radio and radar signals.

They are controlled by stations in Australia and New Zealand, including the Pine Gap facility, co-managed by Australian and US intelligence organizations.

Upgrading economic relations may be more challenging, as Australia and New Zealand, the frontline Western nations, are cutting back on their aid commitments and have not been giving the Pacific what it actually wants.

The region’s most pressing issue is the impact of climate change, which Australia in particular has largely ignored in economic aid packages.

British officials have said they will significantly expand their country’s aid, trade and diplomatic presence in the region, presumably as a post-Brexit market strategy. Geopolitical rivalries in Asia will provide more impetus for Pacific nations to kick off another round of handout diplomacy.

In February, Japan completed its own Vanuatu wharf project at Port Vila Lapetasi, funded by Tokyo at a cost of 9.5 billion yen (US$88.1 million). India, China’s other economic competitor, has also grouped the Pacific in its so-called Pivot to the East, though the Pacific part of the strategy has been slow to evolve.

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