Beijing’s militarization of islands and features it claims in the South China Sea is by now widely seen as a threat to freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.
What’s gone less noticed, however, is how Beijing could use those emerging forward bases to project power into the South Pacific, where critics say Beijing harbors “neo-colonial” ambitions and the United States maintains crucial naval and air force bases on Guam.
A Pentagon report released last month that said China was likely training for air strikes against US and allied targets will have brought China’s emerging power projection capabilities into the Pacific into stark and urgent relief among policymakers in Washington.
The report indicates these training flights are also designed to influence island nations in the South Pacific, where China’s advance southward is already viewed with concern by the US.
“With a strong foothold in the [South China Sea] now, China can project military power across the Pacific Islands at a time when its fishing fleets are also increasing their presence there,” said Ben Bohane, a Vanuatu-based reporter who has written extensively about Beijing’s growing presence across Oceania.
China’s bases in the South China Sea’s Spratly and Paracel island chains, from which Peoples Liberation Army Air Force strategic bombers can reach well into Oceania, now back Beijing’s economic and political ambitions in various Pacific Islands.
Naval and aviation support facilities on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the South China Sea are roughly 1,500 miles closer to Oceania than mainland China bases. Ongoing construction on these three major outposts supports Beijing’s ability to impose force in the poorly defended region.
Captain James Fanell, a retired senior US Navy intelligence officer who has focused on China’s Navy for 30 years, claims that China’s militarization of these South China Sea islands plays into its larger scheme of regional hegemony.
“Across the vast expanse of Oceania, China’s deepening economic and political relationships have paved the way for port leases and maritime construction efforts that serve the PRC’s global power projection vision, and threaten free nations’ security interests,” says Fanell. “It is making a powerful play for this resource-rich, strategically crucial region, from the continent of Australia to the least-populated island nations.”
The Pentagon’s “2018 China Military Power Report”, released on August 16, depicts the offensive strike reach of the PLA’s bombers that can now fly from South China Sea islands deep into Oceania.
It also details the fast improvement of its military capacities on these artificial islands, including through enhanced aviation and port capabilities, fixed-weapons and sensor positions, barracks, communication facilities, and plans for floating nuclear power plants.
Deep offensive reach
While China’s notorious nine-dash line map claim to most of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea was ruled illegal by a Permanent Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague in July 2016, Beijing has openly flouted the international law-based ruling.
Instead, it has increasingly used its military, which now includes its Coast Guard and “Maritime Militia” fishing fleets, to interfere with other nations’ vessels when they transit through the sea. It also deploys those assets to block other claimant nations from accessing the area’s resources including fish and oil.
China started to militarize the South China Sea in 2015, despite a promise by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to do so. Beijing first deployed advanced fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles to the Paracels, an island chain near Vietnam.
In the Spratlys, Beijing has recently completed defense-related infrastructure, including runways capable of accommodating fighter jets across seven artificial islands.
Navy warships now routinely use berthing areas and logistics and intelligence capabilities on the fortified features. Further, Beijing is installing long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and air-defense missile systems in the contested maritime region.
In mid-May, PLA Air Force long-range, nuclear strike-capable H-6K bombers operated for the first time from Woody Island in the Paracels. From there, the cruise missile-equipped bombers can attack targets as much as 3,300 kilometers away, or deep into the Pacific Islands and down to Australia.
Establishing unrivaled military control in the South China Sea helps Beijing achieve immediate strategic objectives, but it is also a key step in China advancing its status as a Pacific Ocean power intent on rivaling America’s long-standing predominance in the area.
Economic advances, colonial ambitions
Over the last five years, Beijing has significantly bolstered its economic ties within Oceania, according to a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report released in June.
Oceania consists of more than 10,000 islands divided into the sub-regions of Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Australasia; “Pacific Islands” refers to only the first three sub-regions.
While the Pacific Islands’ combined landmass is small—roughly the size of Spain–their total exclusive economic zones (EEZs) span nearly 7.7 million square miles of ocean space.
As Bohane notes: “Don’t look at the Pacific as comprising small-island states in a vast ocean: look at them as large-ocean nations to understand their true size and importance. Nations like Kiribati have an EEZ almost the size of the continent of Australia.”
China has growing geostrategic interests in the region. It is the largest trading partner with Pacific Island countries, with trade totaling US$8.2 billion in 2017.
Beyond its trade interests, Beijing’s enhanced engagement with the region is driven by “its broader diplomatic and strategic interests, reducing Taiwan’s international space, and gaining access to raw materials and natural resources,” says the Commission report, entitled “China’s Engagement in the Pacific Islands: Implications for the United States.”
To this end, China is deeply involved with Pacific Island regional organizations, for which it often provides funding and other support. However, Beijing’s perceived tendency in recent years to throw its weight around at the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has started to run some the wrong way.
On September 6, China’s representative to the PIF partner dialogue in Nauru stormed out of the meeting after trying unsuccessfully to address the session and engaging in a tense exchange with the forum’s chair, Nauru President Baron Waqa.
Beijing’s strategy for achieving its aims in the Pacific Islands is well-established and predicable, says Fanell. It starts with financial aid, political donations and investment that pave commercial inroads and an increase in Chinese migration to the region. After co-opting government officials, invariably a PLA Navy-related military objective emerges, he says.
This objective can range from Chinese military access to ports and airfields to so-called “blocking efforts” against the US, seen in the recent obstruction of the development of US military training facilities in the Marianas.
Integration or Infiltration?
Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank reported in August that China’s financial aid commitment to the Pacific Islands has skyrocketed to US$5.9 billion since 2011.
Australia’s commitment is still the largest of all nations (US$6.72 billion), and it provides all of its aid as grants; by contrast, Lowy’s data suggests about 67% of China’s aid has been disbursed as loans, with only 32% given as grants.
China’s interest-bearing loans have saddled many countries worldwide with what are increasingly being referred to as unsustainable “debt traps.”
This debt allows Beijing to take control of the cash-strapped debtor nations’ ports and other facilities as partial repayment, as evidenced by the 99-year lease Sri Lanka signed with a Chinese state-owned enterprise for its Hambantota Port in July 2017.
The “China debt trap” model has become a serious crisis for Pacific Island nations, said Tonga’s Prime Minister Akalisi Pohiva on August 16. Tonga is one of several Pacific Island nations that have borrowed heavily from China and is currently struggling to pay back loans worth about US$160 million from China’s Export-Import Bank.
Last month, Pohiva called on Pacific Island leaders to band together and press China to write off their debts.
Nearly 4,000 miles to the northwest, another small Pacific Island nation, Palau, is a country under economic siege. Its empty hotel rooms, idle tour boats, and shuttered construction sites are the result of Beijing’s economic warfare against it for its continued diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Until recently, China accounted for roughly half of Palau’s all-important tourist trade. But late last year, China employed what some have called “weaponized tourism” to force Palau, a sovereign nation, to submit to Beijing’s foreign policy direction. Beijing effectively banned tour groups and further investment in the idyllic tropic archipelago.
Another rising concern for Pacific islanders is fast-shifting demographics. Island nations have small indigenous populations that could easily be swamped by Chinese immigration, especially now that many island nations are “selling citizenship and passports”, according to Bohane.
“In Vanuatu, a nation of less than 300,000 people, there are plans for two Chinese cities that could host a total of 10,000 to 20,000 people. Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, currently has only 40,000 residents.
While many islanders welcome Chinese investment and trade, they are simultaneously concerned about losing control of their economies and the influx of both Chinese workers and wealthy Chinese expats who live in walled compounds, Bohane said.
Some Pacific Islanders, such as the Solomon Islands researcher Toata Molea, have used the term “colonialism” to describe largely unchecked Chinese investment and immigration to his country, according to a recent New York Times report. “They own everything,” Molea was quoted saying about his ethnic Chinese neighbors. “My fear is that in the next 10 years, this place will be taken over by the Chinese.”
A more accurate term might be “neo-colonialism”, academically defined as the use of “capitalism, globalism and cultural imperialism to exert influence and ultimately control over a country.”
Chinese “neo-colonialism” is, for now, a battle for the hearts and minds of local island populations, Bohane says. “Currently, massive Chinese investment to boost island economies is winning the hearts and minds of island leaders and well-off elites, but not necessarily the populace.”
Foreign policy for sale
Vanuatu, well known for its robust independent foreign policy, is seen by some as the political capital of Melanesia. China boasts it now has more aid projects in Vanuatu than any other Pacific Island country.
“Beijing built a new wharf on the Vanuatu island of Espiritu Santo, making it one of the largest ports in the South Pacific,” says Bohane. “It has built sports stadiums, convention centers, roads, airport upgrades, office buildings for Vanuatu’s Foreign Affairs, and the Prime Minister’s new office.” Australian, Japanese, European, and US aid is comparatively much less visible, he says.
In late 2016, in diplomatic return for Beijing’s financial largesse, Vanuatu became the first Pacific Island nation to recognize China’s claims in the South and East China Seas. Since then, other Pacific nations that receive copious Chinese aid like Nauru and Papua New Guinea have followed suit.
Recent media reports suggest China aims to establish a naval base at Vanuatu. While Vanuatu’s government and Chinese officials deny such plans exist, Beijing initially denied it had plans for the military base it has since established at Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
The base, a 200-acre heavily-fortified facility dubbed by at least one analyst as a “mega-fortress”, became operational in August 2017 and is China’s first such overseas facility.
Described by Beijing as a “logistics base”, the strategic facility is in reality a launch pad that allows PLA Navy and Marine forces assigned there to conduct a wide range of military operations in the region.
China is also investing heavily in the South Pacific’s New Caledonia. Some there are nervous about a looming referendum on whether to declare independence from France and if the vote could potentially lead to violence.
Beijing’s interest in French Polynesia stems from its access to the rich fishery resources of the so-called “tuna belt” as well as its use in space exploration activities, says Fanell. The islands also provide a refueling and transshipment point between China and the Americas that could support PLA operations in the future.
One indicator of intent, Fanell says, is China’s investment of US$330 million for an aquaculture project in French Polynesia’s large and remote Hao atoll—an investment that surpasses all foreign direct investment received by French Polynesia between 2013 and 2016 combined.
The atoll once supported France’s nuclear testing program and is home to an airport that has the capacity to support strategic bombers.
Spanning across Oceania, China is also showing deep interest in the Federated States of Micronesia, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. Each island nation, analysts say, provides potential military logistics and intelligence facility sites.
Bohane and others highlight the potential for instability in some of the island states. They predict possible “pushback” by local citizens against China’s rising political and economic domination of their nations, particularly if that influence is leveraged to facilitate waves of Chinese migration.
Any outburst of instability could be the initial pretext for China to dispatch its Marines to protect its interests and citizens in Pacific Island nations.
“There have been anti-Chinese riots and other violence in Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands in the past,” Bohane says. “At the time, China protested but could not intervene militarily, so the Australian and New Zealand military stepped in to protect local Chinese communities.”
China is rapidly expanding its Marine Corps, from 10,000 Marines just a few years ago to around 30,000 today. Beijing ultimately aims to have 100,000 Marines. It can now deploy these elite soldiers in amphibious assault ships, potentially utilizing its militarized South China Sea islands as staging areas.
These forces could theoretically stay afloat in the South Pacific for extended periods and would be well-prepared to intervene in small island nations’ internal affairs, particularly if their respective governments were unable to maintain internal stability.
“What happens when both the Chinese and Australian military intervene to stabilize a situation next time? Will this give Chinese forces an opportunity for mission creep to stay on and protect expanding Chinese interests and populations there?” Bohane asks.
At America’s shores
Beijing seeks inroads into Oceania not only for resources, but also as “stepping stones” to Antarctica and the Americas, Bohane says.
Ultimately, China seeks to block US influence and military capabilities in the region, says Fanell, and it is employing so-called “political warfare” to achieve that aim.
In the American territory of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), situated just north of Guam, China’s political warfare operations are disrupting essential US military activities.
For instance, Chinese resort developers are now stymying US development of vital amphibious operations training areas on Pagan Island. The inability to conduct such training on US territory because of Chinese influence operations has seriously degraded the readiness of frontline US Navy and Marine Corps forces in the Marianas, says Fanell.
The Commission report details the influence operations by Chinese-owned casino resort owners such as Alter City Group, which lobbied CNMI elected officials against US military activities there because “benefits from the military . . . are minimal, but the burdens are significant and unsustainable.”
China has legitimate geo-strategic interests in the South Pacific linked to its growing trade and investment in the region. But it also has military and political ambitions that could soon replicate the destabilizing situation it has created through its militarization of the South China Sea.
In the South Pacific, that risk comes with what many see as China’s neo-colonial ambitions, a gathering drive that threatens to overwhelm the lightly populated, resource-rich and strategically important ocean basin with Chinese capital, people and a vision for regional domination.
Professor Kerry K Gershaneck is currently a scholar at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University, Taiwan, ROC; a senior research associate with Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law (CPG); and the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Thailand. He is a former US Marine Corps officer, with extensive operational and security policy experience in the Asia-Pacific.