David Fickling

China Has Yet to Learn the Rules of the Pacific Chess Game

China’s growing influence in the microstates of the Pacific Ocean has raised alarm among the powers that traditionally dominated the region — Australia, New Zealand, and the US. If they want to halt Beijing’s advance, they’re going to have to start offering more in return.

A security pact with the Solomon Islands earlier this year first showed the scope of Beijing’s ambitions, permitting China’s police and military to operate in the country. Similar deals were offered to a group of 10 countries alongside a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in May. Wang is now seeking a meeting with foreign ministers of the island countries at the same time that leaders assemble in July for the annual Pacific Islands Forum, the main multilateral body for the region.

China can afford to be so energetic in its diplomacy because the status quo has grown stale, and is no longer clearly serving the interests of these governments. Traditionally, the Pacific has been divided between an Australian sphere of influence in the mountainous, more populous territories of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia; a New Zealand sphere in the Polynesian archipelagoes south of the equator; and a US one in the smaller islands of Micronesia strung between Hawaii and Guam north of the equator.

It’s hard to argue the region has done very well from this arrangement. Thanks to their geographic isolation and minuscule populations, Pacific states do far worse than small island countries elsewhere in the world. Outside Fiji, tourism is rudimentary; to this day, most goods exports consist of fish, coconut and pearls. The offshore financial centers that helped make Mauritius and many Caribbean countries relatively wealthy were stamped out here before they got established. Income levels, when adjusted for the relatively high cost of living, are on a par with sub-Saharan Africa:

What the Pacific nations lack in terms of economic strength, however, they make up for with one strong card: their sovereignty. If you include East Timor, Pacific island nations make up 13 of the 38 members of the Small Island Developing States grouping at the UN. That bloc, in theory, has greater voting power than the 27 nations of the European Union, or the 22 non-island states in the Americas, helping secure committee appointments and diplomatic wins for its allies 2 . Melanesian countries like the Solomon Islands, moreover, are less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the coast of Australia, making a Chinese military presence there a worry for Canberra.

Island governments have a long history of trading diplomacy for development assistance. Four of the 14 states that recognize Taiwan instead of mainland China are in the Pacific; three others have in the past switched allegiance between Taipei and Beijing, making the most of the geopolitical competition between the powers.

Their willingness to entertain more substantial overtures from Beijing is a sign these nations are growing more assertive, according to Sarina Theys, a lecturer in diplomacy at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. “They’re realizing they have more power than they initially thought,” she says. “They’re becoming more vocal and claiming their place on the global stage.”

In that sense, China’s growing interest is seen locally not so much as a threat, but as an opportunity to gain leverage with the traditional major powers on the periphery of the Pacific. Australian foreign minister Penny Wong’s first act after coming to power in the country’s May election was a diplomatic visit to woo governments attracted by Beijing’s overtures. A more open door for labor and permanent migration into Australia is also promised by Wong’s government.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in March appointed the former US ambassador in Malaysia to oversee the renewal of pacts expiring over the next two years with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, three nations that are closely aligned with America through migration and development agreements.

In per-capita terms, the larger Pacific powers have been extraordinarily generous in aid and development assistance over the years. It’s not clear, though, whether Beijing’s promises of investment will happen, or be effective if they do. The experience of countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, left with too much debt and under-utilized infrastructure, recommends a policy of caution.

China isn’t obviously a better actor on the single biggest issue for island governments, either — the global warming that threatens the very viability of some of the more low-lying states.

"Climate change is an existential challenge in the region,” says Theys. “It's the most important security threat the Pacific island states have."

Still, a more competitive diplomatic space in the Pacific is very much in the interests of the region, even if it annoys neighbors who’ve grown comfortable with the status quo. In entertaining but ultimately rejecting the 10-nation security pact proposed by Wang, island governments have shown that they’re growing skilled at the traditional statecraft of minor powers — playing larger nations off each other.

Major powers will have to pay more attention to the Pacific in their future dealings. For island governments, that’s no bad thing.