TIPP: Countering Chinese hegemony in the Pacific

By TIPP EDITORIAL BOARD TIPP Insights

President Biden is hosting leaders from the Pacific Islands, at the White House, in what is termed a “historic” event today. According to the White House statement, “broadening and deepening cooperation on key issues such as climate change, pandemic response, economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific” is the goal of the summit.

The Summit comes a week after the U.S. Congress-funded think tank put out a report that stated, “The vast FAS territorial seas, which span much of the northern Pacific, are an important strategic buffer between U.S. defense assets in Guam and Hawaii and East Asian littoral waters.”

The report warned that should Chinese influence in the Pacific Island nations continue unchecked, “it would imperil U.S. military capabilities in a strategically vital geographic command area and open the door to a broader reordering of regional architecture with implications well beyond the Pacific region.”

The Pacific Ocean forms the American West Coast. U.S. territories such as Hawaii and Guam are located here. The world’s largest ocean also acts as a strategic buffer between the U.S and the countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea that lie across the waters.

China Angle

According to Britannica, Pacific Islands comprise three ethno-geographic groupings -Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Recent political and diplomatic events in these atoll and island nations have brought to light the need for enhanced engagement U.S. in the region.

China is aggressively courting the small and far-flung islands to push its hegemonic agenda. Beijing has been wooing the developing and predominantly agricultural, fishing, and tourism-reliant nations with the promise of extensive infrastructural development and augmented security ties.

China’s interest in the region is manifold.

  • By offering economic, security, and other much-needed strategic assistance, China hopes to sway the Pacific island to its fold – and erode the diplomatic ties enjoyed by the self-ruling island of Taiwan. Beijing’s efforts have borne fruit. In 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati severed diplomatic relations with Taipei and formally established foreign relations with China.
  • China has made no secret of its plans to dominate the Pacific. Some of the busiest and most crucial East-West ocean trading routes are across the Pacific. Command over the region would ensure that the small island nations could be persuaded to align with the Chinese Communist government’s agenda. Besides, Beijing is looking for means to expand its regional military presence.
  • Last year, China signed a secret security pact with the Solomon Islands. The possibility of Chinese military or naval base coming up on Solomon Island territory cannot be ruled out. Reports suggest China plans to turn the island into a regional “aeronautical hub.” But, often, Beijing’s international assistance is a means to serve its own ends. The economic packages and aid come with strings. Developing nations have had to ‘cede’ or ‘hand over’ strategic infrastructure like ports and airports when faced with the prospect of defaulting on debt.
  • Gaining control of the Ocean’s resources would ensure the livelihood and secure food source for the huge Chinese fishing industry. The Pacific boasts of extensive fishing grounds providing livelihood to many. It has oil and gas reserves, especially in the Bering Sea. It is speculated that the ocean floor may yield rare minerals critical to the chip industry.

American Alternative

The U.S. will have to bring more appealing proposals for cooperation and assistance to counter Beijing’s lure. The tourism-dependent islands are reeling after the pandemic almost wiped out the industry. These tiny atolls and islands are bearing the brunt of climate change. Their very existence is in question should the sea level continue to rise unchecked.

Even without upping the investment ante with China, many believe American soft power can build bridges of communication and cooperation. Opening up e-commerce and providing technology transfers and incentives for islanders to attend American universities are avenues that could yield results long term.

The Pacific island nations do not want to become a pawn in the geopolitical tussle between the U.S. and China. They seek diplomatic relations that are mutually beneficial and long-lasting. If the U.S. does not listen, despite pitfalls, the Pacific islands may shift their allegiance to China to ensure their livelihood and survival.

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