International attention has returned to the Pacific island countries (PICs) after China and the Solomon Islands signed a broad security agreement permitting Beijing to send its armed forces to the nation “to assist in maintaining social order” (CGTN, March 31; The Jakarta Post, April 1). Although the pact reportedly does not involve the immediate installation of a Chinese military base, the deal nevertheless sparked the anxieties of other key external actors in the PICs- the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and provides a cautionary tale about the consequences of overlooking this strategic region (China Brief, February 25). In response, the Biden administration dispatched a coterie of senior officials to the region, including National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, who visited the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea (White House, April 18). The Solomon Islands now finds itself caught in the crossfire of U.S.-China competition, and it’s not the only one. Several other island countries including Tonga, Fiji, and Kiribati have also emerged as flashpoints in this rapidly escalating great-power contest that is playing out across the Pacific.
After a volcanic eruption and tsunami devastated the island nation of Tonga in mid-January, several countries mobilized humanitarian aid. The eruption of the underwater Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano ignited an ash plume that traveled over 162 miles and triggered seismic tsunami waves that reached the western seaboard of the Americas (World Bank, January 20). The once-in-a-millennium catastrophe resulted in a national state of emergency and a massive influx of foreign aid. The rush of humanitarian assistance, however, also had a geopolitical component, as part of the broader competition for influence in the region between China, and the U.S. and its allies.
In response to the natural disaster, China sent military aircraft with emergency supplies such as drinking water, food, and other post-disaster reconstruction supplies including generators, water pumps, and chainsaws (Xinhua, January 24; China Brief, February 25). The state-funded Red Cross Society of China provided $100,000 in emergency assistance to the Tongan government (State Council Information Office, January 21). The U.S. government matched China’s provision of $100,000 shortly afterward, and later announced an additional $2.5 million to deliver critical water, sanitation, hygiene, and other disease prevention supplies (USAID, January 25). As Beijing has proactively expanded its influence across the strategically critical Pacific region, Washington has sought to respond. As a result, despite key differences between the PICs, there is at least a tacit recognition among the states in the region that they are enmeshed in a deepening geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China. Indeed, the U.S.-China contest for influence over the PICs looks poised to only intensify.
Official Chinese statements on the Pacific region reflect Beijing’s oft-touted foreign policy principles of mutual respect and non-interference. “In developing relations with Pacific island countries, China always treats all countries, big or small, as equals, upholds justice while pursuing shared interests, and follows the principle of sincerity, real results, affinity and good faith,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “China is committed to building a community with a shared future with Pacific island countries, which has been warmly welcomed by the governments and people of these countries” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (FMPRC), February 11). And Beijing appears, at least publicly, to reject a zero-sum view of the region. Speaking on China’s recently signed security agreement with the Solomon Islands, diplomat Wang Wenbin emphasized that “security cooperation is open, transparent and inclusive, and does not target any third party” (FMPRC, April 19). However, Beijing’s actions appear to indicate otherwise.
In addition to disaster relief assistance, Beijing has also used generous financial aid to increase its influence across the Pacific kingdom. After political riots in 2006 largely destroyed Tonga’s central business districts, China was the only country willing to help it rebuild, providing a $100 million conditional loan (RNZ, July 13, 2018). China has also provided lavish gifts, including a new $11 million government office block, annual all-expenses-paid trips for government bureaucrats to China, and invitations to a training camp in Sichuan province for Tongan athletes and coaches. “The best facilities. The gym, the track, and a lot of equipment we don’t have here in Tonga,” explained Tevita Fauonuku, the nation’s head athletic coach. “The accommodation: lovely, beautiful. And the meals. Not only that, but China gave each and everyone some money. A per diem” (Taiwan News, July 10, 2019).
China has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to countries like Tonga. “To develop friendly and cooperative relations with Pacific island countries is by no means an expedient measure, but a long-term strategic policy of China,” then Vice Premier Wang Yang told the 2013 China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in Guangzhou. Wang averred that “as long as we work shoulder to shoulder and pull the oars together, the ship of friendship and cooperation between China and Pacific island countries is bound to break waves and forge ahead in the vast Pacific Ocean” (FMPRC, November 8, 2013). Nevertheless, the growing bilateral relationship is not without tensions. Tonga currently owes $108 million to the Export-Import Bank of China, which is about 25 percent of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP) (Nikkei Asia, January 20). Due to economic hardships resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Tonga asked China for debt forgiveness in 2020. Beijing denied the request, but extended Tonga’s repayment deadline to 2024 (Stuff, January 21). The U.S. and its regional allies like Australia have voiced concerns that China aims to use such debt to increase its influence over the island (Taipei Times, July 24, 2020).
Tonga’s ties to China extend into the realm of technology as well. The telecom giant Huawei has installed and oversees many telecommunications facilities on the island. After the volcanic eruption earlier this year severed local communication lines, Huawei rapidly restored satellite data services and fixed international voice communications systems (China Daily, January 19). However, Huawei’s presence in Tonga has also become a point of contention between the island and its Asia-Pacific neighbors. Australia permanently banned Huawei from its domestic communications network, while New Zealand’s intelligence agency rejected an initial bid for Huawei to supply components for 5G development in 2018. Both Canberra and Wellington cited national security concerns over the firm’s ties to the Chinese government as grounds for barring Huawei (Sydney Morning Herald, May 21, 2021).
Now, the U.S. is rapidly working to shore up its relations with the Kingdom of Tonga. In his recent visit to the nearby island of Fiji, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with leaders of Tonga and other Pacific Islands via videoconference. In the meeting, he touted the importance of preserving a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and tackling climate change (Government of the Federated States of Micronesia, February 14). Blinken’s visit followed U.S. President Joe Biden’s August 2021 speech to the Pacific Islands Forum, an inter-governmental organization that aims to enhance cooperation between PICs, which was the first time that a sitting U.S. president has either addressed or attended the forum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 6, 2021).
The Biden administration underscored the strength of its commitment to Fiji and the broader Pacific region by dispatching Secretary Blinken to the island amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II. Blinken became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Fiji in 36 years (U.S. Department of State, February 12). “We see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific,” he announced at a joint news conference alongside Fiji’s acting prime minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. More recently, Biden’s “Asia czar” Kurt Campbell visited the island to discuss enhanced bilateral cooperation on issues like climate change, security, and economic recovery (Twitter, April 20).
However, preventing Fiji from becoming further enmeshed in China’s expanding regional influence will require more than mellifluous rhetoric and high-level official visits. “I can tell you that more than 20 Chinese leaders and senior officials above the foreign minister level have visited Fiji since 1985,” Zhao Lijian said when asked about the historic nature of Blinken’s trip (FMPRC, February 11). Furthermore, Fiji’s current prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, is known for his close ties to China. Last October, Bainimarama praised China and called it a “global success” with “unprecedented achievements” (The Fiji Times, October 2, 2021).
Currently, the U.S. is largely playing defense in its efforts to revitalize ties with Fiji after Washington significantly downsized its regional presence in the 1990s after the Cold War. Bilateral relations further deteriorated after the 2006 military coup that thrust Bainimarama into office (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, December 4, 2016). Although U.S. ally Australia remains the chief source of foreign aid to Fiji, China has committed increased assistance, particularly to bolster the island’s transportation systems (Lowy Institute, April 17, 2019). In 2020, Fiji received a $50 million loan from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which followed its decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2018 (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, August 14, 2020). Last November, Chinese diplomat Qian Bo visited Albert Park in the Fijian capital of Suva to announce the establishment of three different “development centers” that tackle issues like poverty reduction, climate action, and disaster relief. Bo said that the poverty reduction center would “step up cooperation in various areas under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative and by sharing China’s experience in poverty eradication to realize common development with PICs” (The Fiji Times, November 20, 2021).
Ultimately, the U.S. lacks China’s on-the-ground presence in Fiji. During the depths of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, China augmented its local presence with around 30 Chinese companies—mostly construction firms—operating across the island nation of 896,000 people. One project, which is facilitated by the state-owned China Railway First Group, aims to expand access to affordable housing for low- and middle-income Fijians in the Davuilevu neighborhood outside the capital (Xinhua, October 15, 2020). “If his goal is to curtail Chinese influence in Fiji and the region, Blinken has his work cut out,” wrote Shailendra Singh, an associate professor at the University of the South Pacific (The Guardian, February 11).
Beloved by tourists for its cerulean seas and world-class bone fishing, Kiribati has a population of just 120,000, no military, and a GDP of less than $200 million (World Bank, accessed April 22). Nevertheless, the island has one of the world’s most expansive exclusive economic zones, spanning over 2.2 million square miles, and occupies a strategic position along the sea lanes connecting the United States and Australia. And, China’s growing influence over Kiribati is unmistakable.
In June 2020, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, the pro-China incumbent, won re-election over a challenger who had explicitly pledged to recognize Taiwan (South China Morning Post, June 23, 2020). The victory came six months after Maamau visited Beijing at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Kiribati joined the BRI. During the visit, Beijing emphasized both its willingness and capacity to facilitate the island’s economic development. China will “encourage more Chinese enterprises to invest in Kiribati” and has “approved the listing of Kiribati as a destination for Chinese tour groups,” declared the official Chinese readout of the visit (FMPRC, January 6, 2020).
Under Maamau’s leadership, Kiribati severed formal diplomatic ties with Taipei and switched recognition to Beijing in September 2019. In 2020, China unveiled plans to upgrade an airstrip on Kanton, one of the nation’s remote islands, located about 1,860 miles from Hawaii (Asia Times, May 10). Kanton possesses historical and strategic significance: it served as a launch point for bombing raids by American planes on Japan during World War II and is near several U.S. territories, including Jarvis, Baker, and Howland Islands. China “is conscious of the U.S.” in working to renovate the airstrip, said Hideyuki Shiozawa, a senior program officer at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation (Nikkei Asia, May 19, 2021).
Under President Trump, the U.S. actively sought to augment its presence in Kiribati, and the Biden administration has pursued a similar tack. The Trump administration created a director for Oceania position on the National Security Council to focus on nations like Kiribati and announced the 2020 Pacific Pledge, which allocated over $300 million in new spending to the region (U.S. Department of State, October 1, 2020). In his pre-recorded remarks to the Pacific Islands Forum last August, Biden sought to bolster America’s renewed presence in the region by pledging 500 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. “We are not attaching any strings or conditions to these doses—this is about saving lives,” he emphasized (YouTube, August 5, 2021).
Yet the U.S. seems to lack a comprehensive, overall strategy for the region. “Washington’s current Indo-Pacific strategy lacks an understanding of small island nations and littoral states, and how the changing dynamics between these small states and their security providers is shaping the overall regional security environment,” wrote Darshana Baruah, an associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (War on the Rocks, March 18, 2021).
Leaders and media outlets in Beijing often accuse Washington foreign policymakers of clinging to a strident zero-sum mentality to foreign affairs. Yet it seems increasingly clear that this mindset is driving the policies of both China and the United States toward the Pacific island countries. Tonga, Fiji, and Kiribati have become the latest examples of island nations that are now largely seen as pieces on the chessboard of U.S.-China competition. With the international landscape rapidly shifting from one of unipolar American hegemony in the 1990s to bipolar U.S.-China conflict in the 21st century, such geopolitical competition will likely persist unabated.
In today’s tense security environment, both sides will probably continue to view interstate relations as a vicious zero-sum game; one state’s gain is the other’s loss. As with many contests in international politics, there will inevitably be winners and losers; to the victor will go the spoils of infrastructure and 5G telecommunications contracts and potential control of some vital fishing industries in the Pacific. One can only hope that among the winners, whether the U.S. or China ultimately prevails, will be the Pacific Island nations themselves and their people.
William Yuen Yee is a Columbia University graduate and the 2022 Michel David-Weill Scholar at Sciences Po, where he will pursue a master’s degree in International Governance and Diplomacy. His writing on China’s foreign relations and international trade has appeared in the Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Diplomat, and SupChina. You can follow him on Twitter at @williamyuenyee.