The battle for the ends of the earth: Australia, the US and China dispute the islands of the South Pacific

The Chinese foreign minister is on a 10-day tour of eight countries to propose a trade and security agreement

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi upon his arrival in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Wednesday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi upon his arrival in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Wednesday.STRINGER (AFP)

Fiji. Kiribati. The Solomons. Tonga. The names evoke tiny tropical paradises, shirtless Olympic flag bearers or bloody World War II battles. But they are also islands in a key strategic position to either give access to the South Pacific or block vital sea routes, a short distance from Australia, for decades the region’s great protector. The territories are now the scene of an intense struggle for control between the great powers: on the one hand, Australia and the United States; on the other, China, which has begun its power play by sending high-ranking government officials to the region and promising investments, security agreements and infrastructure construction.

Alarm began to spread in Canberra and in the United States last month as a result of the unexpected signing of an agreement between China and the small Solomon Islands, with 687,000 inhabitants. The agreement covered trade, fishing and–most importantly–security, allowing Chinese security forces to be sent to maintain social order and protect lives and private property at the request of the national government. Chinese military ships will be able to make visits to the islands and carry out “logistical replacement.” Although the two signatory governments deny the prospect, both Canberra and Washington fear that the pact could open the way for a future Chinese military base in the area, less than 2,000 kilometers from Australian territory.

China’s growing diplomatic and economic activity in the area has not stopped there. This past Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Honiara, the capital of the Solomons, to begin a 10-day tour of eight Pacific island nations: the Solomons, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Upon his arrival, he expressed his hope that relations with Honiara will serve as an example for other Pacific islands.

A “sincere” partner, according to Beijing

Beijing describes itself to the island nations as a “sincere and reliable” partner, appealing to the disenchantment that their governments may feel for the cavalier treatment or even neglect they may have received from Australia and the United States.

Wang will meet with Pacific foreign ministers in Fiji during his tour. The Chinese minister will present a cooperation plan, the China-Pacific Island Nations Common Development Vision, which has already been sent to a dozen governments.

With this initiative, similar in language to the pact signed with the Solomons, China hopes to strengthen its ties with the region. It is offering millions of euros in assistance and the prospect of a free trade agreement giving products from these islands access to the huge Chinese market. Beijing is also offering local police training and cyber security cooperation. In exchange, the country seeks access to the area’s natural resources and the ability to draw highly detailed marine maps of its waters.

China’s aggressive courtship of the islands, until now firmly anchored in Australia’s orbit, has unleashed the fear of a change in the nations’ geopolitical alignment. In addition to their strategic position, their votes in international institutions can be decisive. “We know that China sees [its Development Vision proposal] as the first of many,” said the new Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese. “It is trying to expand its influence in the region of the world where Australia has been the primary security partner since World War II,” he added.

After taking office on Monday, Albanese promised to increase his attention to the island nations. His initiative begins with assistance against climate change, the great concern of states particularly vulnerable to the effects of greenhouse gases and an issue that his predecessor, the conservative Scott Morrison, disdained. Canberra has also announced a plan for 500 million Australian dollars (€330 million) in development aid. One of Albanese’s first acts was sending his foreign minister, Jenny Wong, to Fiji to meet with prime minister Frank Bainimarama before the arrival of the Chinese representative.

The United States has not been left behind. In February, Washington announced the reopening of a US embassy in the Solomons after a 29-year absence. In April, the White House chief for Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, traveled to the area.

The competition has picked up speed this month. In addition to Labor’s victory in the Australian elections, US President Joe Biden’s tour of Asia has contributed to the growing tension. At the Tokyo summit on Tuesday of the Quad, the informal alliance between the US, Australia, Japan and India, the four leaders devoted part of their discussions to China’s growing influence in the South Pacific. They announced the creation of an initiative, the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, that will include the islands of the area to respond to humanitarian disasters, in addition to combating illegal fishing.

This week, during the Chinese and Australian diplomatic campaigns, Campbell spoke by video with Bainimarama about economic agreements and improving security. Meanwhile, according to the Financial Times, Beijing is preparing a new bilateral agreement with Kiribati, although the latter country has denied the collaboration. Minister Wang will visit Tarawa, its capital, for four hours this Friday.

The countries in the region had traditionally been diplomatic allies of Taiwan and therefore had no formal ties with Beijing. After the victory of President Tsai Ing Wen in 2016, though, the Xi Jinping government began courting Taipei’s partners to break ties with the self-ruled island and engage with China. Amidst allegations of corruption and bribery, the Solomons took the step in 2019, just four months after Manaseh Sogavare came to power.

The relationship with the islands has become an important element for Beijing in its strategic rivalry with the United States and its allies, particularly since Washington’s September announcement of the formation of Aukus. The Pacific military alliance also consists of Australia and the UK and is intended to respond to China’s rise.

“The United States is trying to tame China’s rise with its Indo-Pacific strategy, but now China’s footprints are ubiquitous in the region, showing that the taming strategy is not working,” wrote the newspaper Global Times, owned by the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, the islands are accepting the support now coming from all sides. In a tweet this Thursday, Bainimarama wrote, “They ask me about the Fiji agenda. At all tables, what matters most is our people and our planet, as well as our respect for International Law.”

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