The South Pacific has long been seen as the United States’ backyard and a region where Australia holds a hegemonic status. However, despite regular military assistance and other kinds of aid programmes undertaken by both in the region, certain geopolitical changes have brought China into the picture, much to the chagrin of Australia and the United States. Australia has been the primary provider of aid to the Pacific Islands States and has taken an active interest in developments across the region, including political developments in the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Australia even hosts migrant labour from many of the Pacific Island countries, migrants who come to Australia for work for a limited period of time and then return back to the respective small island states.
Now, China has been making inroads into this region. Historically, Beijing’s relationship with the Pacific Islands has been more on the basis of trade and migrant labour coming from China—at one point in time, a migrant labour influx from China started changing the demographics of many of these islands, prompting a few of them to raise concerns way back in 18th and 19th centuries.
The three major factors influencing the relationship today include the recognition of Taiwan by select South Pacific Island countries, the dissonance between Fiji and Australia caused by the arrival of a military government in Fiji (which prompted Fiji’s expulsion from Pacific Islands Forum), and lastly, China’s increased interest in this region following the development of its concept of a blue economy.
China is making further inroads in many of these small island states by reinforcing its presence through diplomatic missions, aid and assistance programmes, and by looking for opportunities to set up bases so as to play a more proactive role, thereby protecting its second and third island chains and interests. China has been engaging the Pacific Islands through its active diplomacy and engaged Fiji when it was shunned by countries such as Australia and New Zealand for its dismal records in human rights and democracy.
Fiji launched the Pacific Islands Development Forum, for instance, and its leader, Frank Bainimarama, visited China to solicit support for the project. The Pacific Islands Development Forum brought together eight Pacific countries and was seen as an alternate regional setup patronised by China. Following these overtures by China, Australia took note of developments and tried to rope Fiji back into the larger dialogue process within the South Pacific Islands.
China has also embarked on its ambition of setting up military bases, establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. Beijing has looked into how Japan had extended its reach through its military power during the Second World War, noting how at the time Tokyo was very instrumental in making significant inroads in securing base facilities in many parts of Asia, including Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. China has also started to better develop its diplomacy, inking clandestine security deals with select Pacific Island countries.
In the Solomon Islands, the US embassy had been closed for nearly three decades. This absence provided the cushion China needed for setting up its presence there. That high-level US delegations had also stopped visiting Pacific Island countries was also seen as indicative of years of Washington’s neglect. Cognizant of this neglect by the United States, China began cajoling many of the Pacific small island states to sever their ties with Taiwan. Subsequently, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched sides and showed their allegiance to Beijing instead of Taipei.
The switch of allegiance was a major setback for Taiwan, which had been patronising the Solomon Islands due to the recognition it had given to Taiwan’s government for more than 36 years. The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands exposed China’s ambition of securing a base there, raising concerns among other Pacific Island countries. This secret pact, even as it was still in draft stages, completely challenged the dominance of the United States in those Pacific waters.
Australia has also grown alarmed by these developments. During an episode of unrest in the Solomon Islands, Australia sent its police forces to control law and order. In the recent draft agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, this same status was accorded to China under terms that authorized Beijing to send its military personnel, security agencies, and other police forces for maintaining law and order.
In addition to this, Chinese ships could seek logistical support and replenishment during their visits to the Pacific Islands, enabling China’s navy to stay in the region for longer periods. There have been reports that China has been looking into securing a similar arrangement with Kiribati and even Tonga. The United States has obvious concerns here given the fact that Kiribati is just 3,000 kilometres from Hawaii. The major objective of China is to project its power across the Pacific to undermine the strategic advantage that the United States enjoys due to its bases in Guam, Okinawa, and other smaller lily pads in the Pacific.
These developments are also of concern for India because the Pacific is a critical area, and India has embarked on deeper engagement with the Pacific Island countries. India has also engaged Australia and New Zealand so as to serve its larger interests in the Pacific region. Even India’s maritime strategy of 2007 alludes to the fact that, for an Indo-Pacific approach to work, India needs to engage itself in multilateral structures and look for resources which can be harnessed through joint ventures and cooperative mechanisms. And a large number of nations in the Pacific region and their votes are seen as one of the required elements for India’s campaigns to sit on the UN Security Council; India needs the support of these smaller nations for its candidature. However, India has acknowledged that in order to engage these Pacific Island countries, particularly in the geographical divisions of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, it would be better if the United States, Australia, and New Zealand are equally engaged in the larger scheme of things.
India has also launched its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) initiative through which many Pacific Island nations have benefited from agricultural assistance and other kinds of support. India, as a member of the Commonwealth, is one of the institutional links connecting this region, and with the increasing clout of the Indian diaspora in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, it has become imperative for India to expand its cultural and strategic influence in the region.
India’s approach towards the Pacific is also aimed at building the rule of law and protecting the global maritime commons which are open and free for all, albeit with certain privileges to the smaller islands. In its maritime strategy document, released in 2007, India talks about the southern Indian Ocean region and the western Pacific region as important areas of interest for India. India has also taken on new kinds of initiatives such as the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) formed in 2014, with a few subsequent meetings held in Fiji and Jaipur.
The major reason for India engaging with the Pacific Islands through this forum has been primarily to identify and collect information regarding resources located in the exclusive economic zones of Pacific Island countries. India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) aims to build up the capacities of these small island nations in resources management, marine life protections, renewable energy, addressing marine pollution, and vocational education. India has even offered hydrographic surveys and data about marine life and sea bed minerals to help these smaller islands better preserve and harness these marine resources in a sustainable manner.
As China makes inroads in engaging Pacific Island countries, there’s concern that this will give China an undue advantage in impacting the policy decisions of these countries relative to India.
For instance, as India prioritizes its space sector, launching multiple satellites while looking for a larger space market, it requires monitoring stations to track the flight patterns of rockets at different separation stages. India has been looking for locations to establish data reception and telemetry tracking and command stations in a few South Pacific Islands states, having previously positioned its ships in the Pacific to gather flight path information.
China has been much concerned and inquisitive with regard to India’s space program, stationing its intelligence and reconnaissance ships in the Indian Ocean region to gather information about launch facilities, particularly launch stations located in the south of India, as well as gathering intelligence on the overall space capabilities of India. Therefore, any presence of China in Vanuatu, Kiribati, and at a naval facility at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands would hamper India’s larger space interests.
Furthermore, India understands that in order to better grasp the effects of climate change the Pacific Islands are one of key the areas to gather better information from, and where India can launch climate mitigation pilot projects. India is already giving aid and assistance through initiatives such as ‘barefoot grandmothers’ and other kinds of training to help these nations find feasible solutions to the climate change problem with minimal environmental damage.
Chinese inroads into this region will undermine India’s programs and presence here, as well, and therefore are viewed with concern in Indian policy circles. And, as noted, India’s search for that elusive permanent UN Security Council seat requires reinvigorating its ties with the Pacific Island countries through FIPIC and other bilateral engagements.
About the Author
Dr Pankaj Jha is Professor with Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), Associate Dean (Research) and also Editor-in-Chief of the JSIA Journal. He teaches national security, international security, and defence strategy. He is also the director of Centre for Security Studies (CSS) and Executive Director of the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies (CESCUBE). Dr Jha was Director (Research) with the Indian Council of World Affairs for more than two and half years (2014-2017). He has been a visiting fellow with Centre for International Security Studies at Sydney University and at the Institute for South Asian Studies in Singapore.
He has also given lectures and participated in high-level dialogues in Germany, Belgium, Israel, China, New Zealand, and Australia. He has authored three books, including India and China in Southeast Asia: Competition or Cooperation (2013), and India and the Oceania: Exploring Vistas of Cooperation (2016). His latest book is India, Vietnam and the Indo-Pacific by Routledge London (2021). Last year he co-authored two books: Crafting National Security Strategy for India (2021) and Envisioning India’s Role in the Indo-Pacific (2021).
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Image: A US dry cargo and ammunition ship practices refueling the Indian Navy’s anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kiltan during a replenishment at sea exercise in the South China Sea, November 1, 2019. U.S. Navy/Steven Santos.