The story so far: Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of China, is currently on an eight-day visit to ten Pacific Island Countries (PICs), and has co-hosted with Fiji the Second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting on May 30, 2022. During the meeting, China’s effort to push through a comprehensive framework deal, the draft of which was leaked earlier, failed to gain consensus among the PICs. Though this has raised regional concerns about China’s growing footprint in the Pacific islands, it has also been seen as a demonstration of China’s limitations in the region.
What is the strategic significance of the PICs?
The Pacific Island Countries are a cluster of 14 states which are located largely in the tropical zone of the Pacific Ocean between Asia, Australia and the Americas. They include Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The islands are divided on the basis of physical and human geography into three distinct parts — Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. The islands are very small in land area, and are spread wide across the vast equatorial swathe of the Pacific ocean. As a result, though they are some of the smallest and least populated states, they have some of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the world. Large EEZs translate into huge economic potential due to the possibility of utilising the wealth of fisheries, energy, minerals and other marine resources present in such zones. Hence, they prefer to be identified as Big Ocean States, rather than Small Island States. In fact, Kiribati and FSM, both PICs, having EEZs larger than that of India. Moreover, these countries have played an important role in major power rivalry as springboards for power projection and laboratories for developing and demonstrating strategic capabilities. The major powers of the colonial era competed with each other to gain control over these strategic territories. The Pacific islands also acted as one of the major theatres of conflict during the Second World War — between imperial Japan and the U.S. Due to the remoteness of these islands from the Soviet Union and major population centres of the world, some of the major nuclear weapon test sites of the U.S., the U.K. and France were located here. In addition, the 14 PICs, bound together by shared economic and security concerns, account for as many number of votes in the United Nations, and act as a potential vote bank for major powers to mobilise international opinion.
What does China seek to achieve from the PICs and how?
China does not have any particular historical linkages to the PICs unlike the Western powers. Therefore, its interest in the PICs is of relatively recent origin, and is linked to China’s rise in the past few decades. The PICs lie in the natural line of expansion of China’s maritime interest and naval power. They are located beyond China’s ‘First Island Chain’, which represents the country’s first threshold of maritime expansion. The PICs are located geostrategically in what is referred to by China as its ‘Far Seas’, the control of which will make China an effective Blue Water capable Navy — an essential prerequisite for becoming a superpower. At a time when the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has emerged as a major force in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China, the need to influence the PICs have become an even more pressing matter for China.
Apart from the vast marine richness of the PICs, the Taiwan factor plays a major role in China’s Pacific calculus. China, which considers Taiwan to be a breakaway territory, is preparing for what seems like an inevitable military invasion. In this context, it becomes important to break Western domination of island chains of the Pacific which could impede reunification. Wooing the PICs away from the West and Taiwan will therefore make the goal of Taiwan’s reunification easier for China. It has to be noted here that a zero-sum game has been underway in the past few decades in the Pacific between China and Taiwan in terms of gaining diplomatic recognition. China has been successful in getting diplomatic recognition from 10 out of the 14 PICs through its economic largesse. Only four PICs — Tuvalu, Palau, Marshall Islands and Nauru, currently recognise Taiwan.
What are the implications of China’s latest move?
China has increasingly started talking about security cooperation in addition to its economic diplomacy towards the PICs. In April 2022, China signed a controversial security deal with the Solomon Islands, which raised regional concerns. Prior to the current visit of Wang Yi, two draft documents prepared by the Chinese side were leaked, and gained the attention of regional leaders in the Pacific as well as the larger international community. One of the documents is the “China-Pacific Island Countries (PICs) Common Development Vision”, and the other is “China-Pacific Islands Five-Year Action Plan on Common Development (2022-2026)”. The vision gives a broad proposal about co-operation in the political, security, economic and strategic areas, whereas the action plan outlines the more specific details of co-operation in the identified areas. The secrecy surrounding the draft, and the haste with which it was discussed with the governments of the PICs during the meeting sent worrying signals across the Pacific.
The PICs as a collective did not agree to China’s extensive and ambitious proposals, and therefore China failed to get a consensus on the deal. In fact, the Prime Minister of FSM had sent a letter to all the PIC governments prior to the meeting, to consider China’s proposals with caution, as they could have negative implications for the sovereignty and unity of PICs and may drag them into major power conflicts in the future. Some have argued that China has acted too boldly and has therefore met with such a debacle. China might have also miscalculated the regional reaction, perhaps led by a monolithic understanding of the PICs after seeing Solomon Islands’ positive response earlier this year. However, China can always come back with improvised plan which is more acceptable and use it to further pursue its final objectives incrementally. Moreover, this debacle does not stop China from pursuing bilateral deals of similar nature.
The intensification of China’s diplomacy towards the Pacific Islands have made the powers who have traditionally controlled the regional dynamics like the U.S. and Australia more cautious. The U.S. has started revisiting its diplomatic priority for the region ever since the China-Solomon Islands deal. The role played by the U.S. in mobilising opposition against China’s proposed deal could not be ruled out as FSM is the only country which recognises China and at the same time is part of the Compact of Free Association with the U.S.. Australia, in the meanwhile, has sent its new Foreign Secretary Penny Wong to the islands for revitalising ties, with promises of due priority and assistance to the PICs.
Wang may leave the Pacific humbled at the end of his visit, but with more insights; the Western powers may have been relieved, but may have turned more vigilant; and the PICs may have become more united than ever before.
Dr. Anand V. is an Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal (Karnataka)
- During a meeting with the 14 Pacific Island Countries, China’s effort to push through a comprehensive framework deal, the draft of which was leaked earlier, failed to gain consensus among the PICs.
- The Pacific Island Countries are a cluster of 14 states which are located largely in the tropical zone of the Pacific Ocean. These countries have played an important role in major power rivalry as springboards for power projection and laboratories for developing and demonstrating strategic capabilities.
- The PICs lie in the natural line of expansion of China’s maritime interest. At a time when the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has emerged as a major force in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China, the need to influence the PICs becomes even more pressing for China.