How the US and Australia can counter China’s charm offensive in the South Pacific

Kiribati President Taneti Mamau (left) shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on September 27, after agreeing to restore diplomatic relations at the Chinese Permanent Mission to the United Nations, in New York on September 27. Photo: Xinhua
  • A domino effect as more Pacific Islands switch from ties with Taipei to Beijing could threaten Australia’s shipping lines and destroy the US Indo-Pacific strategy
  • It’s time for the US and Australia to invest more trade, money and attention to climate change, to ensure friendly allies in the region
Bill Sharp
Bill Sharp

SCMP Published: 11:00am, 4 Oct, 2019

In his book Pivot, the former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, argues that the US has overlooked the South Pacific and failed to see its geostrategic relationship to the US defence posture in Asia.The US has moved from its “pivot” to an “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, making the region all the more important, from a geostrategic point of view. And one that China, similar to Japan during the second world war, sees as crucial to its defence.It should come as no surprise that China seeks to drive a hole in the Indo-Pacific strategy to clear a path from the South China Sea deep into the Western Pacific, just short of Hawaii. Flipping the allegiance of both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati from Taipei to Beijing indisputably advances that goal. Kiribati is only 2,900 km (1,800 miles) from Hawaii and used to be a Chinese missile tracking station.Australia’s security is also seriously challenged by the proximity of Pacific island states, where it is feared that China will build military installations. Not only did the Solomon Islands and Kiribati break diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but Tuvalu could follow suit.

Concern abounds that a domino effect could ensue that would form a crescent of Pacific island nations heavily influenced by China. Such an eventuality could cut off Australian shipping lines to the US and other destinations, and serve as a roadblock to American troops potentially coming to Australia’s aid.

The US and Australia could both have put greater effort into addressing the needs of the region. Only when faced with the possibility of the Solomons breaking relations with Taiwan did the US talk about reopening its embassy in the country. The US embassy in Papua New Guinea covers the Solomons and Vanuatu.The late American and Australian push to prevent the rupture is hypocritical when they themselves have broken relations with Taiwan to establish them with China. The American and Australian failure to address the top issue for South Pacific nations – climate change – contributed to the decisions by Honiara and Tarawa.

From 2011-2017, the US contributed just US$98 million to the region. Australia offered the most financial assistance of any country during that period, with contributions totalling US$6.5 billion. However, there are long-term, smouldering feelings about Australian arrogance and cultural insensitivity.OPINION NEWSLETTERGet updates direct to your inboxSIGN UPBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

To persuade the Solomons to break with Taiwan, Beijing reportedly offered US$500 million in loans and grants. Much of the amount is to be devoted to infrastructure projects, carried out by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, with a certain amount said to go to individual politicians.

Popular opinion on the island was divided, with 80 per cent of the population and 50 per cent of parliamentary members opposed to the switch in relations. Given the lack of parliamentary support, the prime minister extended parliament’s recess until November.

On the other hand, the cabinet was strongly supportive, led by newly elected, iron-willed Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. In 2017, Sogavare was forced out as prime minister amid allegations of accepting a Huawei bribe.Knowledge about the pending passage of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (Taipei Act) through the US government and the punitive measures the act might levy on the Solomons or Kiribati did not deter breaking relations with Taiwan.On the other hand, the man on the street on Solomon Island has benefited from Taiwan scholarships, agricultural assistance and medical services. Support for maintaining relations with Taiwan was particularly strong in Malaita province, which sought to declare independence from the Solomons upon the rupture in relations.

Due to the political instability caused by the break, Prime Minister Sogavare aborted his plan to attend the UN General Assembly and sent Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele instead.

The lessons of the Solomons are not limited to South Pacific countries. Devastated by hurricanes, many nations in the Caribbean offer China an opportunity to spread its influence. Haiti could be one of the next targets. The country is abjectly poor and in dire need of infrastructure development.Given China’s growing influence in the Caribbean, Haiti could be used to help form a crescent-shaped wall extending from Cuba to the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, to protect access to the Panama Canal and the canal that China talks about building across Nicaragua.

The US has done the same thing with its long history in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, governance of Puerto Rico, and control of the Panama Canal. The Chinese would simply be replicating the crescent-shaped wall they built to block access to Australia.

Given Haiti’s location in the heart of America’s soft underbelly, Chinese diplomatic relations with the country would cast a security threat to the US.

The Taipei Act is toothless and makes the US look like a paper tiger. It is trade, money and attention to climate change that is going to underpin US security and promote the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy.Just as a Trans-Pacific Partnership, or some form thereof is needed in the Pacific, a reinvigorated Caribbean Basin Trade and Partnership Act is also required. And the US needs to be much more proactive on global climate change, and go beyond a 15-minute appearance at the UN Climate Action Summit.

Bill Sharp taught East Asian politics at Hawaii Pacific University, Chaminade University and the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He is currently president of Sharp Research and Translation


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