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After decades as an unconsidered backwater, the South Pacific Islands have become a strategic frontline in a multi-nation contest for power and influence in Greater Asia.
It is a measure of this change that for the first time in its 18-year history, last weekend’s annual regional security conference of Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies included a session examining strategic competition in the South Pacific.
What has changed, in essence, is the arrival of China in the region with clear economic, diplomatic and security goals.
The United States is pushing back against that challenge in what Washington sees as a region of core importance to its own national interests. And smaller regional players and powerbrokers such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and even India are making moves to protect and enhance their own interests.
Being the focus of strategic competition is something the South Pacific Islands have not experienced to any great degree since the Second World War, when the region was on the frontline of the Pacific Allies campaign to defeat Japan.
As always, attention from outside is a mixed blessing for the 3.2 million people who live in the 16 island nations that make up the hub of the South Pacific Island complex.
These are Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. In the broader context, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are also full members of Pacific Island Forum, which aims to enhance regional co-operation.
On the plus side, the new attention has given most of the island nations the prospect of economic development that most of them crave and need.
But that has also brought the dangers of untrammeled development with such things as unnecessary or unwise projects, the trap of taking on too much debt, and environmental degradation among societies already among the most threatened by global warming.
And while being the focus of attention of Beijing and its regional rivals gives the islands some negotiating power, that tends to be concentrated in the hands of political leaders. There is a risk they will use that position for personal gain rather than the betterment of their societies.
China’s four goals
A report this week by the British-based global risk assessment company, Oxford Analytica, says China has four objectives in extending its reach into the South Pacific.
One is to extend its security perimeter into a region hitherto the preserve of the US and its allies and to create a buffer between China and its neighbors.
The second is to press forward with its diplomatic contest with Taiwan. Of the 17 countries worldwide that still have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan and none with Beijing, six of them are Pacific Island states – the Solomon Islands, Palau, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.
Beijing’s third objective is to gain access to the natural resources of the South Pacific and its islands, especially fish and timber. China is already the largest trading partner for most of the islands and has about $30 billion invested among them.
The fourth objective is to draw the South Pacific nations into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative by selling them infrastructure, especially port facilities to benefit Chinese commerce and the long-range deployment of its navy.
Spheres of influence
Since the Second World War, the islands have been informally divided into spheres of influence under the paternal wings of the US, Australia, New Zealand and France. Australia is the largest donor of development aid to the region, and the US retains responsibility for providing security for Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Beijing’s reach into these cozy backwaters began in the early 2000s when it launched a money-backed charm offensive. This was aimed initially at luring onto Beijing’s side countries that still had diplomatic relations with Taiwan under its guise of The Republic of China. This name is a relic of the flight to the island of Chinese government leader Chiang Kai-shek and his followers in 1949 after their defeat by Mao Zedong’s communists in the civil war.
Some of the island nations have found playing off China against Taiwan is a lucrative business. Nauru, for instance, broke relations with Taiwan in 2002 when Beijing promised a lavish aid program. But when the money didn’t appear, Nauru severed ties with Beijing and shifted back to Taiwan in 2005.
Of the six that continue to recognize Taiwan, the Solomon Islands are the most populous and most influential.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who returned to power for the fourth time in April elections, has said his government will reassess whether it is in the country’s best interests to stick with Taiwan or shift recognition to Beijing.
This is a concern to many islanders, who are anxious about the existing effects of China as their largest trade partner. China takes 65% of the Solomon Islands’ exports, which are overwhelmingly timber, and are having a drastic effect on the islands’ ecosystem.
Australia and the US have security concerns about a change to recognition of Beijing by the Solomon Islands.
In 2017 Prime Minister Sogavare was removed from office after a no-confidence vote over charges he accepted bribes in return for awarding a contract to Huawei Technologies to lay a fiber-optic cable from the Solomon Islands to Sydney, on Australia’s east coast.
Australia, together with the US, is banning the use of Huawei systems in its own communications network for fear Beijing will use the technology for espionage. Canberra persuaded the Solomon Islands to cancel the Huawei contract.
Australia and others in the region are also concerned that if Sogavare changes diplomatic recognition to Beijing, it will lead to the other five countries that still recognize Taiwan make the same change.
This would give Beijing a large footprint in the South Pacific.
Chinese bases in Vanuatu, PNG?
Other security concerns were raised in April when the Australian media reported that Beijing was in discussions with Vanuatu about building a naval base – as distinct from a commercial port – on the island. Vanuatu is only about 1,500 kilometers off Australia’s east coast and in the heart of the South Pacific Islands.
This would be highly significant coming soon after Beijing established a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa bordering the Indian Ocean, and after its construction of seven military outposts in the South China Sea.
A naval base in Vanuatu would add to the picture of Beijing securing the ability of its navy to project power throughout the Indo-Pacific region. It would also be a significant breach in the lines of island chains the US and its allies have maintained to contain the free movement of the Chinese navy.
The so-called First Island Chain stretches from Japan’s Kuril Islands in the north down through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia to Singapore and the Malacca Strait choke point.
The Second Island Chain is out in the Pacific Ocean and less distinct. It includes Japan’s Ogasawara and Volcano islands, the Mariana Islands, which are US territory and are home to Washington’s important military base on Guam, and stretches down to eastern Indonesia.
The Third Island Chain begins at Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and thrusts down to the South Pacific Islands, with US bases on the Hawaiian Islands as the military hub.
If Beijing were able to establish a naval base on Vanuatu it would breach both the Second and Third Island Chains.
Both Vanuatu and Beijing dismissed the stories of a Chinese military base, but the Australian Foreign Minister at the time, Julie Bishop, backed the media reports and said Vanuatu was a “natural strategic partner” for Beijing.
There appears to have been solid information behind the reports of a naval base agreement, and it is most likely that the plans have only been deferred because of the publicity.
Certainly, both the US and Australia have reacted to the prospect of a Chinese base in their backyard by beefing up their own deployments. Canberra and Washington have made an agreement to develop a naval base on Manus Island off Papua New Guinea’s north coast.
Australia and the Americans rushed in not only because of Vanuatu, but because last year there was some apparently well-founded speculation that Beijing might contract with Papua New Guinea to rebuild the Lombrum naval base on Manus as well as port facilities at Wewak, Kikori and Vanimo.
Speaking at the Singapore conference last weekend, the Australian senior official in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, echoed similar remarks by American officials. She said “the Australian government made it clear that any foreign base in the region would not be welcome. We would strongly condemn and oppose that. It would have an obvious negative impact on Australia’s strategic situation and the strategic situation in the region.”
So the South Pacific has joined the widening circle of regions – the Far East, Southeast Asia and the northern India Ocean – where there is a clear contest for power and influence between Washington and Beijing.