The Sino-US Competition for Soft Power in Pacific Islands
If the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on May 26 that the American administration’s approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is to align with its partners and outcompete Beijing, such alignment and competition can be seen in how the US and its allies have reacted to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to the Pacific Islands.
Wang began his eight-nation tour in the Solomon Islands on May 26 and terminated his trip in the last stop at Timor on June 4. He visited the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor, apart from an online visit to Micronesia and met leaders of the Cook Islands and Niue through video links. Wang also chaired the Second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Fiji.
During his trip to the Solomon Islands, Wang reiterated that China aimed at strengthening communications with friends in the Pacific Islands, enhancing mutual trust, building consensus, deepening friendship and cooperation. The Solomon Islands’ Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele said that China’s support was crucial in shaping the Island’s efforts at developing the economy, fighting Covid-19 and improving the people’s livelihood. Both sides agreed to cooperate in the areas of agriculture, fishery, timber, minerals, health and pandemic response, disaster mitigation work, and industrial development.
However, an earlier agreement between China and the Solomon Islands to strengthen cooperation raised the eyebrows and alarms of the US and its Asian allies, which perceive the Chinese moves as “aggressive.”
A more objective analysis of the Chinese-Solomon Islands agreement shows that there was not really any attempt made by the PRC to “militarize” the Pacific Islands.
The US and Australian sensitivity to the Sino-Solomon Islands agreement could be traced back to the development in 2019, when the Solomon Islands parliamentary taskforce suggested that the government should switch its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC and when it criticized the US for neglecting the local economic development.
Two months prior to the PRC’s establishment of closer economic and security relations with the Solomon Islands in April, the US had repaired its damage in the Islands by reopening its embassy in Honiara after closing it down in 1993.
During the trip to Samoa, Wang Yi signed a cooperation agreement in the areas of health, education, public administration, sports and agriculture.
Just before Wang arrived at Fiji on May 29, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that “Fiji is not anyone’s backyard,” implying that Fiji did not want to be used by any powers, including the US and Australia, to maintain their sphere of influence. When Bainimarama met Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, he said that “we are a part of a Pacific family.” Fiji appears to tilt toward the US in May when it joined the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
On May 29, Wang Yi met the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna, in Suva. Wang said that China was ready to enhance dialogue with the Forum and cooperate in marine ecological protection, e-commerce and the import of quality products to the large Chinese market.
On May 30, PRC President Xi Jinping delivered his speech at the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, saying that China attaches great importance to South-South cooperation, that the PRC is committed to equality of all countries, that Beijing is a good friend sharing the same ideal and faith of expanding ties with the Pacific Islands, and that China is keen to pursue peace, stability and development in the region.
On June 1, when Wang Yi visited Tonga, he remarked that China has no desire to have “geopolitical competition” with other countries over the influence on the Pacific Islands.
On June 3, as Wang Yi visited Papua New Guinea, he said that China issued a position paper focusing on mutual respect and common development between the PRC and Pacific Islands countries, forging cooperation in various areas such as climate change, poverty alleviation, disaster prevention and mitigation, agricultural promotion, Juncao technology (the use of Juncao to cultivate edible and medicinal fungi and to produce mushroom protein forage) and the reserve of emergency supplies.
Despite the reassurance from Wang that the PRC is uninterested in competing with other countries over the Pacific Islands, the US and its allies have reacted to China’s initiatives quickly.
On June 24, a statement was released by the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and United Kingdom on the establishment of the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), which provides US$2.1 billion in development assistance to the Pacific Islands. The statement asserts that such assistance would deliver results for the Pacific effectively and efficiently, “bolster Pacific regionalism,” and benefit the peoples in the Pacific Islands.
However, the Pacific Islands are by no means united. In early July, Kiribati decided to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum on the grounds that the Forum had not adequately addressed the concerns of Micronesian countries. In February 2021, Micronesian leaders wanted to leave the Forum after their preferred candidate for the secretary general position of the Forum was neglected in favor of a Polynesian diplomat, although there was a tacit consensus that the top position should be shared between three groups of Islands states, namely Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian countries. Clearly, there was a geopolitical split within the regional bloc of the Pacific Islands.
On July 12, US Vice-President Kamala Harris delivered an important speech online at the Pacific Islands Forum, saying that “bad actors” are “seeking to undermine the rules-based order.” Her speech appealed to the heritage and culture shared by the US and Pacific Islands, and she vowed to deepen the US engagement and partnership with Pacific Islanders. The US would establish two new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati. Harris remarked that the US government would request from the Congress an increase from US$21 million per year to US$60 million per year for the next 10 years. These funds would help Pacific Islands to deal with climate resilience, marine planning, marine security, marine conservation, and the combat against illegal fishing.
Obviously, the US competition with China is prominent in the Pacific Islands. China’s recent agreement with the Solomon Islands in April has embraced cooperation in humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and the maintenance of social order. But a clause that says that China can “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement in, and have stopover and transition” in Solomon Islands has triggered the sensitivity of US and its allies. The US and Australia still see the Pacific Islands as their sphere of influence.
New Zealand objects to any attempt at “militarizing” the Pacific Islands. Yet, by joining the US-led PBP, New Zealand has perhaps given an image of being an indispensable ally in the US attempt at “containing” the rise of China. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on July 13 that New Zealand’s police would continue to help build up the capability and capacity of local police in the Solomon Islands and Fiji.
Profound distrust between the US and its allies on the one hand and China on the other remains prominent and serious. Such distrust could be attributable to the military installations made by China on a few islands on the South China Sea, and to the very assertive Chinese diplomacy in the Pacific Islands.
For the Pacific Islands, the US-China rivalries benefit the Islands as both sides have injected more investment and humanitarian assistance to the region. However, given the fact that the Pacific Islands are not fully united, as seen in Kiribati’s withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum, the attempts by the US-led allies to exert deeper influence on the Islands may be more complex than conventional wisdom assumes. Racially speaking, some Pacific Islands may not want to easily become the “backyard” of foreign powers, especially those countries that are governed and dominated by the white people. Despite criticisms of the Chinese influence and penetration in the Pacific Islands, China was a country suffering tremendously in the Second World War as with many Pacific Islanders. Japan, however, is now an indispensable part of the US-led allies that seek to perpetuate their influence in the Pacific Islands.
In conclusion, the US reactions to China’s assertive diplomatic activities in the Pacific Islands have become prominent and swift. The US policy of aligning with its allies and competing with China can be easily seen in their struggle for soft power in the Pacific Islands. The beneficiaries are the Pacific Islands states, which are going to receive tremendous amount of assistance from the US and its allies as well as China. Dollar diplomacy has emerged as the most defining feature of US-China rivalries in the Pacific Islands.