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The US and its allies are scrambling to respond to China's intensifying moves in the heart of the Pacific

Christopher Woody   

The US and its allies are scrambling to respond to China's intensifying moves in the heart of the Pacific
  • During the first half of 2022, China has intensified its outreach to Pacific Island nations.
  • China's inroads have alarmed the US and its allies in the region, which see Beijing as going for a strategic advantage.

In the five months since one of President Joe Biden's top advisers warned that the Pacific was likely where the US could see a "strategic surprise" from China, Beijing has stepped up its overtures to the small but important islands of the region, prompting the US and its allies to scramble in response to growing Chinese influence.

Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for Indo-Pacific on the National Security Council, told a think-tank audience in January that such a surprise — consisting of "basing or certain kinds of agreements or arrangements" — was a top concern "over the next year or two."

That concern was given form in late March with the leak of a draft "security cooperation" agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, which said the Solomons could ask China to send police and military personnel "to assist in maintaining social order" and that China could, with permission, make "ship visits" and send "relevant forces" to protect Chinese interests — potentially giving China's military a toehold in the South Pacific.

In the Solomons, the news prompted fear that Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare could call on Chinese forces to repress future protests against his government. Neighboring countries, including Australia, criticized the deal as a threat to the region's governance and security. US defense and diplomatic officials cautioned that the deal's "broad nature" could lead to deployments of Chinese forces and "set a concerning precedent" for the region.

Sogavare, who called the backlash "very insulting," said on April 20 — two days after the Biden administration announced a trip by Campbell and other officials to the region — that he had signed the deal and done so "guided by our national interests." The final text has not been released but Sogavare and Chinese officials deny it will lead to a Chinese military base.

The White House said there had been "substantial discussion" of the deal while US officials were in Honiara and that if there were moves toward a permanent military presence or "power-projection capabilities" in the Solomons the US "would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly."

China has security-related agreements with Pacific island countries, largely focused on law enforcement — Australia and New Zealand have similar relationships — but the deal with the Solomon Islands is seen as broader in scope and as coming at a time of higher geopolitical tension.

In the weeks after the Solomons deal was signed, China's outreach appear to intensify, with reports it was pursuing a similar deal with Kiribati and its proposal of a sweeping deal with 10 Pacific countries: the Solomons, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

A draft of the proposal was circulated prior to a trip to the region by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in late May. It proposed to "strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and non traditional security," to expand law-enforcement cooperation, and to cooperate on cyber security and smart technology.

Leaders were wary before and after discussing their meetings with Wang.

In a May 20 letter to 21 regional leaders, Micronesian President David Panuelo called it "the single-most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes" and "demonstrative of China's intention to shift Pacific allegiances in their direction."

"The Pacific needs genuine partners, not superpowers that are super-focussed on power," Fiji President Frank Bainimarama said on May 30, adding that after an "excellent meeting" with Wang, Fiji sought "stronger Chinese commitment" to trade and environmental issues.

The countries ultimately didn't support China's proposal. The US has cast that as reluctance to engage with Beijing, but Wang signed other bilateral deals while in the region, and countries there with a strong interest in development assistance still see economic opportunity in China.

Leaders appeared "miffed" by Beijing's "abrupt" presentation of a pre-written agreement rather than discussing it first, said Charles Dunst, an expert on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Opposition to this specific pact doesn't indicate "a wholesale or final rejection of cooperation with China," Dunst told Insider.

Huge challenges and strategic importance

China's Pacific outreach is a years-long effort to build relations and influence in the region, filling a "strategic vacuum" created by "benign neglect" of longstanding security and economic ties by the US, Australia, and New Zealand, Anna Powles, an expert on Pacific security issues at New Zealand's Massey University, told Insider in October 2019.

As in other regions, China seeks access to natural resources, trade, and infrastructure projects, such as internet cables and ports and airfields.

China has also sought to expand its diplomatic ties to further isolate Taiwan — in September 2019, both the Solomons and Kiribati formally recognized Beijing — and to bolster its support in international forums.

China also sees strategic value in the Pacific islands as "footholds" or "perches" from which to counter the US militarily. In 2018, Australian officials said Beijing had discussed establishing a military presence with Vanuatu, and there is concern about the military implications of other Chinese projects, including in Papua New Guinea and Kiribati.

The dynamic mirrors the Allied island-hopping campaign of World War II, which sought to roll back the Empire of Japan by recapturing strategically located Pacific islands. The historical link was underscored in early May, when the US State Department commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, a clash in the waters between Australia and the Solomons that is seen as a turning point in the war.

"We've certainly seen sources that show that China is really interested in thinking about the Japanese approach to challenging US dominance of the Pacific," Anne-Marie Brady, a professor and expert in Chinese foreign policy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said at a Hoover Institution event in May.

Brady said that China's economic growth and military investment since the 1990s have given it the ability to begin countering the US military in the Pacific island chains, long been seen as defensive lines against the Soviets and now the Chinese.

New Zealand said in 2021 that a Chinese base "in the Pacific would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region," Brady said at the May event.

Australia's chief of joint operations, Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton, said in March that Chinese navy operations in the Solomons would "change the calculus" and prompt Australia's military to change its day-to-day operations, patrolling patterns, and maritime awareness activities.

In addition to providing better awareness of activity in the region, a more consistent Chinese military presence in the Solomons is "bound to have a political effect on the thinking of leaders in those island areas about the importance of maintaining good relations with China," Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told Insider in April.

The US and its allies have mounted a flurry of efforts to counter China's inroads. The US said in February that it would reopen its embassy in the Solomons, which was closed in the 1990s. Australia's foreign minister has made multiple trips to the region in since taking office in June.

US military leaders have repeatedly underscored the importance of the Pacific Islands to their operations, particularly has they try to disperse their forces to counter the growing reach of China's arsenal. The US has stepped up efforts to renegotiate the Compacts of Free Association, its unique defense agreements with Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands that expire in 2023 and 2024, holding an in-person meeting with the Marshall Islands in mid-June.

Time and distance has kept the US Navy from maintaining a significant presence among the Pacific Islands but it is looking to strengthen and expand its ties there, with a particular eye toward logistics support, according to Vice Adm. William Merz, who commanded the Japan-based 7th Fleet from 2019 to 2021.

"The rising tensions, especially in that region, has certainly created a whole new level of enthusiasm for more and more players to participate with the US, and we're trying to take advantage of that," Merz said at a defense industry conference in February 2022.

US commanders say Pacific islanders are interested in greater collaboration, in part out of concern about China, but the region's leaders also stress a desire to avoid conflict and to focus on pressing issues, specifically the existential threat of climate change.

"In Fiji, we are not threatened by geopolitical competition," Fiji's defense minister said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June. "In our Blue Pacific continent, machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships, and green battalions are not our primary security concern. The single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change."

The US appears to be taking "tangible steps" in the region, Dunst said in early June, pointing to a need for more non-military engagement, better alignment with Australia and New Zealand, and to make clear the US's long-term interest in the region outside the context of US-China competition.

On June 24, the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Japan announced the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative to support the region "according to principles of Pacific regionalism, sovereignty, transparency, accountability, and most of all, led and guided by the Pacific Islands."

In a speech prior to the announcement, Kurt Campbell underscored the US's historical ties to the Pacific and stressed the importance engaging with and supporting those countries and their region, vowing more high-level US outreach and delivery of "public goods."

"There is a general recognition that this is a region of not only moral responsibility and huge challenges — environmental and the like — but it's of strategic importance," Campbell said. "I think it will be important for us to demonstrate that as we go forward."


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