David Fickling

Friendship Is the Best Way to Counter China in the Pacific

Regional powers have been watching China’s growing influence in the Pacific with rising alarm, and casting around for ways to counter it. After Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands earlier this year and offered a similar deal to other Pacific Island nations, efforts stepped up a gear.

At the annual Pacific Islands Forum last week, Vice President Kamala Harris promised to build new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati and offered a near-tripling of aid for marine resilience and security. “In recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve,” she said. “So today I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that.”

In all this effort, one policy that’s been central to neighbors’ relations with the Pacific for decades has been ignored: migration.

The challenges for small island countries like those of the Pacific are unique. Their numbers include relatively affluent territories like Palau, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, which occupy a status in between full independence and support by their former colonists. On the other hand, the region also includes nations like Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati, which receive far less aid and whose development levels are often comparable to those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Alongside the longstanding challenges of physical isolation and slow economic development, the region is also most at risk from climate change. Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are among the world’s lowest-lying nations. Long before the islands themselves are claimed by the sea, the fragile layers of rainwater that keep thin soils irrigated risk being disrupted by saltwater. The high dependence on imported food throughout the Pacific is one reason that the region has some of the highest incidence of diabetes worldwide.

Migration has long been central to the Pacific’s relations with the wider world. The Marshallese and Palauan diasporas in the US number about half as many people as live in those respective countries, thanks to the fact that they, along with citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, have full work and residency rights there. There’s about four times as many Samoan Americans as there are residents of American Samoa. People born in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are full citizens of France and the US. New Zealand has a green card-style program for citizens of Samoa and four other Pacific nations that grants permanent residency to 1,750 people a year.

The gap in this picture is Australia. In contrast to New Zealand, whose Pacific Islander population accounts for about 8% of the total (Maori comprise an additional 16.5%), it has long turned its back on the region.

In the 19th century, tens of thousands from the islands of Melanesia were kidnapped or tricked into working in the Queensland sugar industry in conditions little different to slavery. One of the first laws passed after independence in 1901 was an act to deport the roughly 10,000 who remained, a plank of the racist “White Australia” policy that was only finally dismantled in the 1970s.

The country’s Pacific-born population numbers just 190,170 now, compared to 381,642 in New Zealand and 1.4 million in the US — proportionately not much higher than it was in 1901. In the popular mind, “migration” and “Pacific islands” are associated mainly with the grim detention centers on the islands of Manus, in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where Australia has sent refugees for many years instead of processing their claims onshore.

To its credit, the new Labor government has promised to provide a permanent migration program similar to New Zealand’s, that would provide 3,000 visas a year to islanders. It’s also boosting existing temporary labor migration streams to allow family members to travel as well, and strengthening protections against worker exploitation.

That’s welcome, but it could afford to be far more generous. If 10,000 visas a year were available to the most isolated Pacific populations — those from Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu — then within a decade Australia could boast diasporas equivalent to 10% of the populations of their home countries. Those migrants would be able to support island economies through sending remittance money home, while building a web of links that Beijing would struggle to disrupt.

More visas should be provided for Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbor and a nation that it’s neglected since the end of colonial rule in 1975 — though its population of nearly 9 million is unlikely to become as intertwined with an overseas diaspora as smaller island nations.

Nations seeking to counter China’s influence in the Pacific shouldn’t be surprised if island governments are enthusiastic about the arrival of a new power in the region. If they want to counteract this shift, friendship and migration will do far more than hectoring and promises of aid.