China’s Engagement in the Pacific Islands: Implications for the United States

US-China Economic and Security Review Commission – Staff Research Report

June 14, 2018

Ethan Meick, Policy Analyst, Security and Foreign Affairs
Michelle Ker, Policy Analyst, Economics and Trade
Han May Chan, former Research Fellow, Economics and Trade

(Source: US-China Commission; issued June 14, 2018)

Since President Xi took office in 2013, Beijing has significantly bolstered its involvement in the Pacific Islands region, which comprises three U.S. territories and three countries freely associated with the United States that are important for U.S. defense interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Much of China’s engagement in the region has focused on expanding economic ties with the Pacific Islands, but it has also increased its footprint in the diplomatic and security realms.

This report examines China’s interests in the region, its comprehensive engagement in the Pacific Islands, and the implications of its expanding presence and influence for the United States.

Executive Summary

As Beijing steps up its global engagement under General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping, China is also increasing its involvement in the Pacific Islands region. Beijing’s heightened engagement in the region in recent years is driven by its broader diplomatic and strategic interests, reducing Taiwan’s international space, and gaining access to raw materials and natural resources. Although the Pacific Islands receive less of China’s attention and resources compared to other areas of the world, Beijing includes the
region in its key diplomatic and economic development policy—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—which suggests China has geostrategic interests in the region. An April 2018 news report on purported discussions over a potential Chinese military base on Vanuatu, though denied by both countries, raises concerns that a Chinese base could be established in the Pacific Islands. Such a development could pose challenges to U.S. defense interests and
those of Australia and New Zealand, key U.S. partners in the region.
Over the last five years, Beijing has significantly bolstered its economic ties with the Pacific Islands. An examination of trade, investment, development assistance, and tourism data shows China has become one of the major players in the region, well ahead of the United States in most areas. Beijing concentrates much of its economic engagement, especially aid and tourism, among its eight diplomatic partners in the region,* but recently it has also made inroads with other Pacific Island countries, including Taiwan’s diplomatic partners.

In terms of diplomatic and security engagement, China has increased its footprint through participation in regional organizations, high-level visits, and public diplomacy efforts. At the multilateral level, China is deeply involved in Pacific Island regional organizations and often provides funding and other support, even if it is not a member or observer. China’s public diplomacy efforts in the region are designed to expand its soft power, including cultural,
educational, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities. While China’s security involvement in the region is limited compared to its diplomatic and economic engagement efforts—only three Pacific Island countries possess militaries†—it is also on the rise.

Beijing’s growing engagement in the Pacific Islands pose a number of implications for U.S. interests in the region. China’s inroads in Micronesia, where most of the United States’ engagement in the Pacific Islands is concentrated, could threaten U.S. Compact of Free Association agreements with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia over the long term. ‡ Some analysts are concerned China is trying to erode U.S. influence in the region to weaken the U.S. military presence and create an opening for Chinese military access. In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory near Guam in Micronesia, Chinese investors’ casino resort developments could complicate U.S. Department of Defense plans in CNMI for extensive training and exercises resulting from the recent relocation of Marines from Okinawa, Japan. In addition, as China increases its economic engagement, Pacific Island countries may feel more beholden to Beijing and side with it at
international fora. Finally, Beijing’s efforts to weaken Taiwan’s international space in the Pacific Islands—a region that is home to 6 of Taiwan’s 18 diplomatic partners —negatively impacts a key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific.

*The People’s Republic of China has official diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
† These include Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga. Vanuatu has a police force and paramilitary wing with an internal security mission.
‡ The Compact of Free Association agreements the United States has signed with the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau grant each country full independence; reciprocal permission to freely travel, work, or study in the United States; financial assistance; and U.S. commitment to provide for their defense in a conflict. In exchange, the agreements allow the U.S. military to station troops in the countries, use their land for bases, and bar other militaries from operating within the countries’ territory. U.S. Department of State, Marshall Islands Compact of Free Association, May 1, 2004. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/173999.pdf; U.S.Department of State, Republic of Palau Compact of Free Association, January 10, 1986. https://pw.usembassy.gov/wpcontent/uploads/sites/282/2017/05/rop_cofa.pdf; United States Department of the Interior, Joint Communique on the Signing of Documents Amending Certain Provisions of the Compact of Free Association between the Federated States of Micronesia and the United States of America, May 13, 2003.
http://www.uscompact.org/files/FSM%20Publications/Compact%20Documents/Negotiating%20Documents/Communiques/8th%20Joint%20Communique%20-%20Final.pdf. § Taiwan’s six diplomatic partners include Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

Click here for the full report (36 PDF pages) on the USCC website.

Disclaimer: This paper is the product of professional research performed by staff of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and was prepared at the request of the Commission to support its deliberations. Posting of the report to the Commission’s website is intended to promote greater public understanding of the issues addressed by the Commission in its ongoing assessment of U.S.-China economic relations and their implications for U.S. security, as mandated by Public Law 106-398 and Public Law 113-291. However, the public release of this document does not necessarily imply an endorsement by the Commission, any individual Commissioner, or the
Commission’s other professional staff, of the views or conclusions expressed in this staff research report.

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