Three of the major groups of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Map: Wikipedia

While China’s growing presence in the developing world has stoked fears in Western media, coverage of the country’s quiet but rapid insertion into the affairs of the Pacific Island nations has been scarce. Why is an economic heavyweight like China interested in cultivating ties with the remote and thinly populated island nations of the Pacific Ocean?

The answer is that Beijing views the region as rife with commercial, diplomatic, and geo-strategic opportunities.

One such opportunity is found off the coasts of the islands. The nations of this region possess exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that encompass a combined 19 9 million square kilometers of ocean water. This matters because China’s own fishing areas have been severely depleted from years overfishing and other unsustainable practices.

With skyrocketing seafood prices at home, Chinese fishermen have turned to operating illegally in other nations’ EEZs, sometimes traveling as far as Argentina in search of tuna and other commodities.

In December, the Chinese government hosted a fisheries summit with representatives of the Pacific Island nations, during which China offered to bolster its presence in the region and invest in Pacific Island countries “in areas of fishing, aquaculture, fishing-boat repair and building, [and] fishing harbor construction.”

Several weeks before that meeting, the small republic of Kiribati moved to open an extensive marine reserve to commercial fishing, prompting speculation that Beijing might have influenced the decision.

Behind much of this commercial engagement, however, has been the decisions of regional governments to sever ties with Taiwan.

Over the past decade, China has been picking off Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, including in the Pacific Islands region. In 2019, the Solomon Islands dropped its recognition of Taiwan, followed four days later by Kiribati. Taipei alleges that Beijing secured these diplomatic victories through offers of planes and development funds to both countries.

Two months later, Tuvalu – one of the four remaining nations in the region that recognize Taiwan – rebuffed offers by Chinese government-backed companies to build artificial islands, reaffirming its recognition of Taiwan’s government.

Beyond providing domestic firms access to the islands and decreasing Taiwanese influence, Beijing also values Pacific Island nations because of their United Nations votes. Through economic cooperation, investment, and generous foreign aid, China was able to incorporate these island nations into a China-friendly voting coalition at the UN.

While a greater presence in the Pacific may give China an edge in international diplomacy, it can also erode the influence of the United States and its allies in the region.

The United States – along with Australia and New Zealand, by extension – has held traditional sway over the Pacific Islands. That, however, is changing. A number of Pacific Island countries have already signed on to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure project that seeks to increase China’s influence and international connectivity.

Washington worries that China may use BRI projects as leverage to establish military bases in the region. Such a development would significantly expand the reach of China’s air force, navy, and surveillance systems – and would profoundly complicate US and allied security considerations.

Moreover, Beijing has recently announced plans to revamp a strategic airstrip in Kiribati, and Chinese naval ships have visited several of the island nations in recent years.

The possibility of Chinese geo-strategic advances in the islands of the Pacific will likely generate increased attention from Washington and its allies to these oft-forgotten countries. And while a Chinese military installation in a Pacific Island nation might not be on the immediate horizon, China’s economic and diplomatic motivations will prompt it to become an increasingly important actor in the region.

Jack Erickson is a student of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has written for The National Interest¸ China Focus, and Charged Affairs.