As Quad leaders gathered for a second in-person summit in Tokyo, China’s foreign minister and State Councilor Wang Yi announced his visit to the Pacific Island Countries. His visit is China’s move in the ensuing great power rivalry in which both Washington and Beijing appear to be playing a zero-sum game of influence in the South Pacific.
This game of influence is evident through four factors.
First, great power competition is brewing in the Pacific, which has led to some Pacific Island countries engaging in hedging behaviour.
Second, China is trying not just to increase its influence in the Pacific, but also to undermine the US and Australian influence.
Three, Beijing has been engaged in a charm offensive, focussing on the Pacific Island Countries for some time, through sustained political, economic, and other efforts.
Fourth, Quad and US’ Indo-Pacific strategy have worried China, so this game of influence will further intensify.
When the document of the China and Solomon Island security framework agreement leaked, it worried not just the US but also states in the South Pacific. David Panuelo, president, Federated States of Micronesia, warned Solomon Island Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that this deal could make the region “the epicenter of a future great power confrontation.” His concerns are not unfounded. The South Pacific is indeed becoming the next theatre of the great power competition between Washington and Beijing.
The US-led Western block and Beijing are vying for influence in South Pacific. When great power competition ensues and states become a battleground for power, hedging is often a safer strategy and explains the approach of South Pacific nations. Whether it is sustainable in long run is another debate.
For example, when the details of the Beijing-Honiara security deal were leaked, Sogavare assured that the deal is meant to “diversify security partners”, and that deal was “guided by national interest.”
In other words, by reducing dependence on Australia, Sogavare is trying to ensure the security of his government and State. Lastly, the hesitation to agree with China’s position paper and sign a regional security deal so far is another indication of Pacific Island countries stepping very cautiously.
Secondly, China’s engagement with South Pacific is about increasing its influence and about diminishing American and Australian influence. It’s a zero-sum game. For example, Australia has a security cooperation agreement with Honiara and is a preferred security provider. However, when violence erupted in Honiara in 2021, Sogavare asked Beijing for help, in addition to Australia and others. Australia went from being a “key security provider” to becoming “one of the options” to seek out.
Similarly, China’s increased cooperation with the Solomon Islands is likely to impact Canberra-Honiara’s economic relations. Wang Yi’s visit agenda also included the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. The first meeting of this forum was held in October 2021 where foreign ministers of many Pacific countries participated. As evident from China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s statement to the press, this forum is established to increase the engagement of Beijing in the region.
Third, China has been playing a long game in South Pacific. Over the years, Beijing has been gradually increasing its influence in the region.
First, China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative has already made inroads in the Pacific. It has signed Belt and Road cooperation MOUs with 10 Pacific Island Countries. Second, while China’s President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Pacific Island countries in 2014 and 2018, the highest level of official engagement from the US came only in 2021 when President Joe Biden participated in Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Three, in 2019, Honiara cut ties with Taiwan and followed Beijing’s line on the “One China” policy. The “Inter-governmental Framework Agreement on Security Cooperation” between Beijing-Honiara is a culmination of these efforts.
Fourth, there is little doubt that developments related to Quad have worried China. From writing off Quad to referring to it as “Asian NATO”, Beijing’s position reflects its insecurities of being isolated in what it considers as its sphere of influence. China is worried about countries in South Pacific falling into Quad’s influence.
Lastly, apart from Quad, the US’ posture and initiatives in Indo-Pacific are also worrying China. US’ Indo-Pacific strategy outlines that the Biden administration is keen to focus on “every corner of the region…including the Pacific Islands.” This includes ‘building connections and alliances withing and beyond the region’, like Pacific Islands, and ‘seek to be an indispensable partner to Pacific Island nation.’
Acting on these lines, the US has increased engagement with Pacific Island nations. For example, in August 2021, US President Joe Biden became the first-ever US President to participate in the virtual gathering of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) leaders.
Earlier this year the US announced its intention to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands after it was closed in 1993. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited Pacific Island nations in February.
Moreover, Blinken became the first US secretary to visit Fiji in 36 years. Later in April, a White House delegation led by Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell also visited Honiara in aftermath of the China-Solomon Island security framework deal and also visited Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
Hence, China’s worries of Quad-type grouping manifesting in the South Pacific have increased. This fear is evident in Wang Wenbin’s recent press statement where he asserted that the people of the “Asia-Pacific” region will not allow “confrontation between military blocs and camps to be introduced into the Asia-Pacific region.”
With increasing US engagement and Beijing’s insecurities flaring up, this game of influence will further heat up in the Pacific. Wang Yi’s meeting turning out to be a mixed bag is already an indication of challenging times ahead in the South Pacific.
Megha Pardhi is a research analyst (China Studies), The Takshashila Institution.
The views expressed are personal