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China and the Pacific Step Up ; By Balasubramanian C

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

Image Courtesy: ABC

Article 22/2022

As Australia went to the elections on May 21, 2022, we saw China dominating Australia’s domestic politics during the election campaigns. As Professor Simon Jackman, University of Sydney, who studies the major issues for Australian voters in elections observed a perceived threat from another country; has not been an election focus since the Cold War.

A recently leaked document exposed China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands raising concerns in the US including Australia. The leaked document revealed the South Pacific Island’s unprecedented level of security cooperation with Beijing which includes the latter’s right to access naval facilities in the Solomon Islands for resupply/logistical replenishment and stopover transition. This shows the expansive security language used in the document. The US and Australia (including New Zealand) believe this could serve as a benign nomenclature for a Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands which Beijing denies and brushes as a business-as-usual approach to its diplomacy. However, the case in point is Djibouti where China initially claimed it to be of a ‘minor logistics access agreement’ which later turned out to be ‘China’s first overseas military base’.

The advantage of a base for China in the South Pacific region is that any force projections by the US in the South Pacific particularly in East Asia would require the US to pass through this point of friction which may later turn to be a ‘strategic choke point’ for the US and Australia. This will eventually undermine and disrupt the US force flow. Also into Chinese thinking is the case of Taiwan whose influence Beijing has been working to undermine. About one-third of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are located in the Pacific. Thus, having a military base in South Pacific would enable China to coerce/influence diplomatically and financially Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. They may be influenced to switch sides and not recognise Taiwan.

The domino effect of Beijing’s actions would drag the South Pacific into a ‘theatre of tension’ between China and others in the region especially Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Such destabilisation makes this region a place for great power rivalry. The need of the hour is ‘strategic empathy’ by the US and others in the region like New Zealand and Australia to rethink the strategies to meet the demands of the region in the long term. A Chinese presence is bound to shift and reshape the landscape of this strategic space.

The November 2021 civil unrest in the Solomon Islands saw the public protest against Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s action of switching sides to China and abandoning Taiwan. The protesters were also from a coalition called ‘Malaita for Democracy (M4D)’ which was declared unlawful in 2021 by the government of Solomon Islands. While PM Sogavare blamed foreign powers for fostering anti-govt. protests it is widely known that the switch to Beijing was with little to no public consultation where there were already plaguing issues of lack of jobs provided by foreign players. Though the contents of the agreement were not publicly released, a military base/installation by China in the Solomon Islands will be a red line for Australia and the West.

The Solomon Islands holds a geostrategic location among shipping and communication lines in the Pacific Ocean. China’s interest in this region is not new. In 2018, Beijing in its soft diplomatic overtures offered a deal to Papua New Guinea (PNG) (situated to the west of Solomon Islands) to develop their Lombrum Naval Base on the Manus Island. However, PNG went ahead to award the contract to Australia. This rejected deal in 2018 has now been made possible in the Solomon Islands by China in 2022 which has now become a ‘Pacific power grapple’ between China and the US including Australia and New Zealand.

Although in terms of numbers the US has the largest military bases across the globe (Around 800) in comparison with China (only one in Djibouti) the latter possesses the world’s largest navy pushing the former to second place. It is significant to note the methodology adopted by the US and China in this. While the US prefers to form alliances with commitments in terms of security guarantees, China takes a nuanced approach by way of economic agreements and security arrangements.

Lying to the north-west of the Solomon Islands is the Guam Island where the US maintains a naval and airbase as part of its strategic force projections in the western pacific. In January 2022 North Korea test fired its ‘Hwasong-12’, an intermediate to long-range ballistic missile which analysts opine was powerful enough to put the US territory of Guam and the US base in Japan Okinawa in range. This adds up to the region’s woes as China uses North Korea to its advantage against the US and Japan as it uses Pakistan against India in the South Asian Region. Now, this security agreement with the Solomon Islands gives China an upper hand in terms of intelligence gathering in the Pacific Ocean. This also gives the power to observe military exercises carried out by the US and West and monitor the activities carried in this region thus favouring Beijing to exude power across the Pacific.

The security agreement may likely see a ‘Domino Effect’ in the future in this region as Beijing will reward the Solomon Islands with investments, increased tourism, and development plans with the promise of prosperity. It may even favour the current ruling dispensation in Solomon Islands to perpetuate its entrenchment into the Island’s domestic politics. This will effect other island neighbours like Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, Oceania among several others to be more receptive and favourable to China. These small pacific islands also act as potential vote banks that can favour China in international fora like the UN. By realising the significance of this region Beijing wants to extract the resources as these pacific island states possess large maritime EEZs despite their small size.

China understands the Pacific Islands suffer from structural deficiencies like poverty, urbanisation, immigration, population explosion, unemployment, lack of infrastructure and Climate Change which the US, Australia and New Zealand have little to no solution. China is or will be seen as a solution to these ills as these island nations understand their geostrategic positioning. Time is not too far to see such politics be seen playing by these island states to play the China card to seek leverage from the US and others like Australia and New Zealand. Also, Beijing has inserted itself between the US bases in the Pacific and Australia which is strategic signalling to the recently concluded AUKUS deal between the US, UK and Australia.

Lessons for India

There is an ‘Indian Ocean Politics’ happening for the last several years and it is much visible in the Western Indian Ocean where China has shown considerable interest. The beginning of 2022 saw the Chinese FM Wang Yi undertaking five-nation tour to Eritrea, Kenya, Comoros, Sri Lanka and Maldives. All these lies in the IOR where China is already ahead to diminish Indian influence in the region. In addition, there are classified US intelligence reports indicating Beijing’s intention to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in Equatorial Guinea. It helps project Beijing’s power directly towards North America and Europe. There in lies the importance of Western Indian Ocean (WIO) for countries like Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles will serve as transit/supply hubs and logistics support.

Many African states like Kenya for instance are already part of BRI and are known to seek Chinese support and funding. During Wang Yi’s visit the oil terminal at the Mombasa port was inaugurated. This is an important project on the Indian Ocean coast. It augments the $3.6-billion Chinese-funded Mombasa-Nairobi railway. China in December 2021 had conducted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Dakar, Senegal expressing its developmental intentions to African states and its ambitions. Such initiatives and visit by Wang Yi to Comoros also diminish French influence in the region (Reunion Islands) and Mayotte which France continues to hold. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are already well known for seeking Chinese investments for their economic development. It also stems from Beijing’s insecurity arising due to India’s pivotal position sitting on the top of IOR and the former not being a member of any IOR grouping in the region.  This has made Xi Jinping create one under the ‘shared community for mankind’ principle and a more recent Global Security Initiative (GSI), as enunciated by his Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng.

The IOR is critical to global trade, security, and geopolitics and it remains to be seen how India prioritises its engagements as well as tackling Chinese manoeuvring. The WIOR is also part of India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative and part of the Indo-Pacific. Countries like Japan and France also look at the WIOR as part of their Indo-Pacific framework. For the US, WIOR comes under the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and from Hawaii to India, the region is covered by the Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) as renamed in 2018 denoting its growing importance.

As the geopolitics of the region is undergoing an unprecedented flux in tandem with the strategic shifts in the Indo-Pacific it signifies an intensification of great power rivalry and domestic volatility for the small pacific island countries in the coming years impacting the region’s already ongoing geopolitical competition.

(Balasubramanian C is a Senior Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The article was originally published in the Hindustan Times.  His areas of interest include Sino –Russia Relations, Indian Ocean Region, Geo-economics, Security, and Strategic Studies. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S)

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