Beijing Building Influence, Shelving Competition in the South Pacific

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 20

NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo in Fiji

The announcement in late August 2012 that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tour through Asia would begin with a stop in the Cook Islands and coincide with the annual Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting was certainly no small news [1]. While the United States has long held observer status at the Forum, Clinton’s presence was the highest U.S. representation ever at the meeting, trumping the Chinese representation by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai (Xinhua, September 1) [2]. The visit in itself was generally consistent with the Obama Administration’s “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific—and, generally consistent with Beijing’s reaction to the “rebalancing,” provoked Chinese concern (China Daily, August 29). While Clinton’s participation in the Post Forum Dialogue was a first, Cui was attending his second such event following up on Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin’s visit earlier this year (Xinhua, May 25). Last month, another Standing Committee member, Wu Bangguo, also traveled to Fiji—exiled from the Pacific Islands Forum since 2009 for its military government—to sign several small loan agreements, boost economic cooperation and thank Fiji for standing by the “One-China Principle” (Xinhua, September 21). These Chinese visits suggest a more deliberate policy to build Chinese influence in the South Pacific—irrespective of other players—to overcome Beijing’s previously haphazard investment in infrastructure there and the fluctuations attendant in countering Taiwan’s checkbook diplomacy prior to 2009.

American Lake, China’s Challenge

Certainly, the announcement got the attention of officials in Beijing, with the official press expressing concerns that the visit could increase great power tensions in the region (Xinhua, September 1; China Daily, August 29). Since the end of World War II, the Pacific Ocean area has been an area of clear U.S. dominance. Attempts by opposing powers to gain a foothold in the region, whether by the Soviet Union during the Cold War or by China today are usually met with great energy by the United States. However, great energy is not always accompanied with great finesse, as the U.S. predilection toward equating the Soviet Cold War threat to China’s presence today obscures a great deal of nuance between the situations.

China’s interest in the Pacific Island countries is not new and Beijing has participated in these dialogues since 1989 (Xinhua, August 28). Its increased engagement in the region can be traced at least as far back to the immediate post-Cold War period and corresponds to a decrease in U.S. engagement in the region. Beijing’s major foreign policy goals in the region also are not particularly confusing. Mainly, China hopes to deny political recognition to Taiwan and develop economic ties (both access to raw materials and trade markets) within the region [3]. Isolating Taiwan in the international community was a significant issue for Beijing, and the region previously had been the location of a political tug-of-war with Taipei. Some island governments tried to take advantage of this fact, playing one side off of the other for financial gain, but, despite the rhetoric, most relations have been remarkably stable. The most significant shift may have been 2003 when Kiribati shifted recognition to Taiwan. Formal relations between Kiribati and China had been in place since 1980, and the Chinese built a satellite tracking station on Kiribati’s main island of Tarawa in 1997. It was the first space station built outside of China and was said to be playing a major role in the development of China’s space program. More suspicious analysts noted the station was also very close to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. With the election of Anote Tong to the Presidency, the new administration announced it would be establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, causing a furor. President-elect Tong did not suggest China should leave; indeed, he may have been gambling that the satellite station was too important for China to give up. If so, this was a miscalculation, as China closed down the station and withdrew in a matter of weeks.

China’s exit from Kiribati suggests three things. First, it is doubtful that the station, if it was gathering intelligence on the U.S. missile defense program, was getting anything of significant value. Second, the closure suggests the base’s importance as a part of the Chinese space program, and as a potential future docking point for Chinese ships, had been overestimated. Third and most importantly, the withdrawal suggests, whatever the value of the station, it did not outweigh the importance of the Taiwan issue for Beijing.

In 2009, Beijing and Taipei announced a “truce” between them, ending (at least for now) the previous “checkbook diplomacy” in the region and was tied warming of cross-Strait relations under Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (Taipei Times, April 14). In terms of raw materials, China receives significant amounts of, among other things, timber and tuna. While it is large, this trade, like tourism, is at the moment more important for the island states than for China. China’s interests, however, extend for the much longer term as the possibilities for accessing seabed minerals and other underwater resources becomes technologically and economically feasible.

Looking Ahead

A larger international profile by China today is practically inevitable considering its economic growth over the last two decades, and there are many areas of mutual interest for China, the United States, and the rest of the world, such as increasing economic development and trade. While much of China’s economic interests (e.g. freedom of navigation and lower barriers to trade) coincide with the United States, the manner in which these interests are secured may come in conflict. For example, the Chinese may consider freedom of navigation best secured by its own growing maritime assets rather than depending upon the United States, and, with concerns already over the development of Air-Sea Battle Doctrine, Beijing’s unease is understandable (Global Times August 6; “China Assesses President Obama’s Asia-Pacific November 2011 Trip,” China Brief, December 20, 2011). On the U.S. side, concerns over China’s naval assets are obvious, and it is telling that the 2012 iteration of the RIMPAC naval exercises held in Hawaii included first time attendees Russia and India.

In the past, China has received a public relations “lift” in Oceania not just because of what it does, but how it does it. China fetes the island leaders with great fanfare, and Chinese officials are quick to avoid any discussion over the internal affairs of the island states. This gives China an edge over the United States, Australia and New Zealand for the latter nations’ perceived arrogance and intrusiveness in dealings in the region. Henderson and Reilly argue that the Kingdom of Tonga’s 1998 switch to recognizing Beijing—after a 26 year relationship with Taiwan—was due in part to concerns that democratizing influences in Taiwan would add to the pressure coming from the United States, Japan and especially Australia for the Kingdom to include greater input from the people in its government [4]. Increasing conditions for some reform in return for aid from the latter countries made recognition and subsequent assistance from Beijing more palatable to Tonga. At the 2011 Forum, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cui called Chinese assistance to the islands “South-South” aid, and would continue to work bilaterally with the island governments rather than coordinate with other donors (Beijing Review, September 26, 2011).

It is no longer the case, however, that China’s growing presence in the region is completely welcome—it now has a record in the region that it must run against. China’s assistance has been biased toward grand infrastructure projects (e.g. stadiums, government buildings, etc.) but with little thought for continuing upkeep and maintenance. Over time, this may prove to be the deciding factor between closer relationships between island governments and Beijing or a resurgence of relationships with more traditional partners. This may explain why Cui at this last Forum stated Beijing would support ongoing fisheries management, increase technical assistance and training, add to the number of scholarships for study in China and support energy-saving infrastructure upgrades (, August 31). Beijing also invested in a Confucius Institute at University of the South Pacific, a Xinhua branch in 2010 and local community colleges, so a steadier Chinese presence is developing (Xinhua, September 1; Beijing Review, September 26, 2011). While China seeks to expand its role in Oceania and the United States and its regional allies hope to manage such an expansion, the island governments themselves are attempting to balance between the two, hoping to maximize benefits in assistance and trade. Like others in the Asia-Pacific region, the island nations do not want to be in a position where they would have to “choose” between a relationship with Beijing or Washington.

Perhaps the biggest question, then, is whether China’s increased activity in Oceania constitutes a zero-sum game for the island nations as well as the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and others. Oceania experts Edgar Porter and Terence Wesley-Smith note, “China’s growing regional presence allows Pacific leaders to contemplate alternatives to established networks of power and influence and entrenched models of economic and political development” [5]. This fact causes understandable consternation for the traditional powers of the region, but perhaps more importantly highlights the fact that the Pacific Island leaders are not inanimate pawns in some “Great Oceania Game,” but independent agents in their own right. Moreover, China is not the only “new” player in the game in Oceania. The United Arab Emirates has created a $50 million program on renewable energy with the Pacific Islands, and during the 2012 Forum, Fiji’s Foreign Minister was attending the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Tehran and formalizing relations with Iran (Island Business September 4). If it is to weather the “China Challenge,” the United States must show resilience and a commitment to engagement in the long term, not simply “one-off” high-profile events. Long-term commitment is not usually a strong suit in U.S. foreign policy, and the United States must be careful not to disappoint the region with exaggerated promises as Beijing steadies Chinese engagement.


  1. Originally called the South Pacific Forum, it changed its name in 1999 to better note the membership of island countries (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, and Palau) north of the equator.
  2. The highest previous representation was 2011 in Wellington—the Forum’s 40th Anniversary—by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and Assistant Secretary or State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.
  3. Currently, Taiwan has diplomatic relations with Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu.
  4. Benjamin Reilly and John Henderson, “Dragon in Paradise: China’s Rising Star in Oceania,” The National Interest, No. 72, Summer 2003, pp. 94–104.
  5. Edgar A. Porter and Terence Wesley-Smith, “Introduction: Oceania Matters,”in Terence Wesley-Smith and Edgar A. Porter, eds., China in Oceania: Reshaping the Pacific?, New York: Bergham Books, 2010, p. 3.