Taiwan’s trade office in the Fijian capital probably did not expect a fight when it held a reception this month for a hundred or so distinguished guests at the venerable Grand Pacific Hotel to celebrate the national day of the Republic of China (ROC), the de facto independent island off of mainland China’s coast.

According to the Taiwanese, two officials from the Chinese Embassy in Suva gate-crashed the event and became violent when they were asked to leave. The melee ended with one of the Taiwanese hosts being treated for a head injury at a nearby hospital.

China’s version of events claims that some of its diplomats had been in a “public area outside the function venue” carrying out unspecified “official duties” and accused Taiwanese officials of acting “provocatively” and causing “injuries and damage to one Chinese diplomat.”

Whoever started the fight and whatever actually happened shows how seriously China and Taiwan take the battle for South Pacific influence. For Taiwan, it’s superficially about diplomatic recognition and ocean access for its substantial fishing fleets, which operate in the central and western Pacific.

Four of the 15 countries that recognize the ROC and not the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are located in the South Pacific, namely the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru and Tuvalu. The number is shrinking as China is making fast inroads into the strategic region.

In 2019, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both switched their recognition from ROC to the PRC.

Certain resource-starved Pacific nations have shifted recognition back and forth depending on which Chinese side offers more aid. As for now, Taiwan appears to have lost the game and must be diplomatically content with unofficial missions, such as the trade office in Fiji, to maintain a presence in the region.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway, renegade province which it has repeatedly threatened to invade and incorporate into the mainland. Part of that drive seeks to persuade countries into derecognizing the ROC as an independent entity. But for China, Taiwan and its unofficial Western allies including the US, there is more at stake.

Map: Facebook

The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean forms a buffer between East Asia and North America. Before and during World War II, Japan sought to establish a presence there to challenge the US. Now and for the same reason, it is China that pushing into the region to recalibrate the region’s power balance.

In the short term, China’s objective may indeed be to isolate Taiwan in the international community, while its long-term objective is likely to replace the US as the self-proclaimed “guardian and the protector” of the Pacific and shift the region’s geopolitics.

Beijing is pushing into the region through aid packages, by encouraging Chinese migration to Pacific island nations where they set up shops and local businesses and, before the Covid-19 pandemic halted most recreational travel, tourism.

But it’s not all soft power. When Palau, a tiny island nation of some 20,000 people, refused to give up diplomatic relations with Taiwan and switch allegiance to China in 2017, Beijing ordered tour operators to stop sending tourists to Palau.

Prior to the ban, official data showed that Chinese tourists accounted for about half the visitors to Palau. Of the 122,000 visitors in 2017, 55,000 were from China and 9,000 from Taiwan.

Palau and other nations in the region may be tiny with small populations, but they are all strategically located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A case in point is Tonga, a country of no more than 100,000 people who live on 700 square kilometers of land. However, its scattered litter islands are surrounded by a 700,000 square kilometer economic exclusive zone (EEZ).

Once a close ally of Taiwan, Tonga shifted recognition to China in 1998 and its king received a red-carpet welcome in Beijing along with promises of aid including a fleet of eight military trucks worth US$500,000.

Two deputy chiefs of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also visited Tonga shortly after it switched recognition and, in more recent years, dozens of Tongan bureaucrats have been invited to all-expenses-paid trips to China.

But the relationship has been tumultuous, too. In 2006, crowds angered by perceived exploitation by newly-arrived Chinese businessmen looted and burned Chinese-owned shops in the capital Nuku’alofa. The Chinese embassy then had to charter an airplane to evacuate Chinese nationals.

A Chinese restaurant owner in the Tongo capital of Nuku'alofa on March 28, 2012. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood
A Chinese restaurant owner in the Tongo capital of Nuku’alofa in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

But China has retained a hold on the island nation in the form of loans and grants. According to a 2020 budget statement, Tonga’s external debt stands at $186 million, of which two-thirds is owed to China.

In July, Tonga asked China to restructure its debts as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Pacific’s crucial tourism industry, driving the island kingdom into a deep economic crisis. As such, Tonga is now firmly in China’s financial and strategic grip.

Kiribati, another Pacific island nation with 115,000 people and 811 square kilometers of land, controls an EEZ estimated at 3,441,810 square kilometers, making it geopolitically important.

It achieved independence from Britain in 1979 and, the following year, established diplomatic relations with China, which in 1997 established a satellite tracking station on the small, poor island nation.

At the time, Washington suspected that the station would aim to monitor American missile tests at the nearby Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a close US ally that also has close relations with Taiwan. Then, in 2003, Kiribati decided to recognize Taiwan and lost control of the station.

While it was not said openly at the time, intelligence sources maintain that the switch was not only Taiwan’s doing. The US also wanted to unplug China’s satellite tracking station, a testament to Washington and Taipei’s joint efforts to limit China’s influence in the Pacific.

China, furious at the loss of the station and a diplomatic ally, counteracted with promises of aid and, Kiribati opposition figures allege, bribes to government officials. That led to last year’s switch of diplomatic ties back to Beijing.

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau was then invited to Beijing, where his Chinese host Xi Jinping praised him for “being on the right side of history.”

Maamau thanked Xi for “the support we have received from China” and also took “this opportunity to reaffirm my government’s commitments to the one-China principle”, which recognizes Taiwan as a breakaway Chinese province and not as an independent country.

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Kiribati President Taneti Maamau during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in January 2020. Image: Twitter 

The satellite tracking station in Kiribati was mothballed as long as the country maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan and it is not clear whether it will be reactivated. The late Australian signals intelligence specialist Desmond Ball pointed out in the late 1990s that the station was actually too small for advanced operations such as monitoring missile tests on Kwajalein.

He argued that China’s Yuan Wang tracking ships were far more useful for basic intelligence gathering. Those spy ships, laden with various types of communications equipment, are now active worldwide.

According to the website globalsecurity.com, four Yuan Wang tracking ships are regularly deployed to three major oceans — the western Pacific, South Pacific and Indian Ocean — to support, track and control the piloted missions of China’s Shenzhou spacecraft and spaceflight program.

China’s loss of the Kiribati station in 2003 was significant for another reason: it deprived Beijing of a secure land base in the Pacific from where movements and activities of the Yuan Wang ships could be coordinated. With Kiribati now back on its side, Beijing will once again be able to do so.

Fiji is another key partner for China. The Yuan Wang 5 and Yuan Wang 7 spy ships have used Suva’s Kings Wharf to resupply and perhaps more. In June 2018, Chinese ambassador to Fiji, Qian Bo, went public by refuting Australian media reports that the Yuan Wang 7 had been used to spy on the Australian HMAS Adelaide, which was docked at Suva at the same time. But not everyone in Australia believed it was a mere coincidence.

More recently, rumors abound about the possibility of a new Chinese-built wharf on the Vanuatu island of Espiritu Santo eventually being converted into a naval facility. The port is one of the largest in the South Pacific and can reportedly accommodate three cargo ships and two cruise liners at the same time. That’s far more than would be needed for the mere commercial purposes of the island’s 40,000 inhabitants and occasional tourists.

A port facility on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Photo: Twitter
China has allegedly approached leaders on the Pacific island of Vanuatu about building a naval base. Photo: Twitter

Both China and Vanuatu have denied the reports, insisting that the wharf is only for non-military use.

Over the past decade, China has become one of the biggest aid donors to the island nations in the Pacific, funneling $6 billion worth of grants and occasional loans into infrastructure projects linked to its Belt and Road Initiative. That means many more Pacific nations may, like Tonga, could end up in a sovereignty-eroding debt-trap Beijing could seek to leverage to its strategic advantage.

The great game between China and the US with its ally Taiwan for Pacific influence is on, as the fistfights between Taiwanese and Chinese officials at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva pugnaciously showed. But unlike its earlier forays into the region, China now has a fighting chance to come out on top.