Denghua Zhang CANBERRA (NIKKEI ASIA) —The battle between the U.S and China for influence in the Pacific is set to continue next week when regional leaders gather in the Cook Islands’ capital Rarotonga for the annual Pacific Island Forum leaders’ summit. Both Washington and Beijing have been placing increasing value on the Pacific region in recent years.
From the U.S perspective, Pacific island countries hold significant strategic and military value in terms of containing China’s expanding influence. The U.S has been enlarging its military presence in the region to deter Beijing as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy that the administration of U.S President Joe Biden set out last year.The U.S has also been increasing its development assistance to Pacific states, especially Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau, which each have special security compacts with Washington. Biden has personally courted Pacific leaders, twice inviting them as a group to White House summits, most recently in September, while emphasizing historical ties and the common link of liberal democracy. In pursuing its agenda in the region, the U.S often relies on Australia and New Zealand for support. For its part, Beijing is looking to Pacific nations as it seeks allies in the Global South to deflect strategic pressure from the West and to advance the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan. China has used its aid programmes to deepen cooperation with Pacific nations in areas such as agriculture, education, fisheries, infrastructure and health. As a region, the Pacific received about 4 percent of China’s total foreign aid between 2010 and 2018. The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been a focus of China’s engagement with the region as Beijing seeks to share its development experience in line with President Xi Jinping’s Global Development Initiative. In July 2022, the China-Pacific Cooperation Centre on Poverty Reduction and Development was launched in the coastal city of Fuzhou. Like the U.S, China has also been seeking to promote security cooperation with Pacific states. Washington and its allies have shown concern about the security pact signed by the Solomon Islands and China in March 2022, soon after the two nations established diplomatic relations. The agreement permits Honiara to request policing and military support in case of unrest. Chinese police trainers are now helping their counterparts in the Solomons prepare for the Pacific Games, which are to be held in the country later this month. It is unclear whether Beijing might seek to establish a military base in the Solomons. Some Chinese scholars have suggested that Beijing should develop “dual purpose” ports in Pacific states to counterbalance American forces. In August, China sent a team of police officers to work in Vanuatu. So far, China has been generally welcomed by Pacific island countries as a new option for engagement, particularly due to its willingness to provide infrastructure support. This has led the U.S to commit to increasing its assistance as well. In the face of this great power rivalry, Pacific island countries have sought a balance between them, though in soft power terms, Washington seems to have the upper hand. A survey I conducted last year of 210 local scholars, university students and nongovernmental realise staff in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga showed that respondents viewed the U.S. and other traditional powers as more important partners for their countries than China. The U.S and its allies also remain the destination of choice for foreign study. Yet Pacific island states prefer to take a cautious approach to issues China considers sensitive, such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. On Monday, Fiji announced it had withdrawn support for a U.N. motion calling on Beijing to address human rights violations in Xinjiang. Pacific island states have their own agenda at the UN where they have sought to get the U.S. and China to align with policy priorities such as climate change and ocean conservation and to support the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent.
It would indeed be in everyone’s interest if Washington and Beijing could increase coordination and cooperation on public goods like the fight against climate change, given that global warming poses an existential threat to many Pacific island countries.Such coordination could be considered a test of the genuineness of the two great powers’ commitment to support the Pacific region in tackling climate change. This may seem unlikely, but both Beijing and Washington continue to signal an openness to working with each other in areas like climate change. Next week’s meetings will give both powers a good opportunity to show how they can help Pacific island nations…. PACNEWS Denghua Zhang is a research fellow with the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs of the Australian National University in Canberra.