China in South Pacific Region: One Step Away from Absolute Power
The South Pacific region, stretching from the shores of Australia to South America and encompassing more than 30,000 islands, has felt China’s growing influenced since 2000s. By 2018, it had grown so strong that it became a threat to Australia’s strategic security. It should be noted that in the last 30 years, Australia has viewed itself as a regional leader. China’s enormous investments, loans, grants, intended for the benefit of thirteen small island-states and another thirteen dependent territories in the South Pacific, belonging to Australia, New Zealand, France, and the USA, have made PRC a key benefactor, but not a strategically important player in the southern part of the Pacific Ocean as yet. Beijing’s negotiations with the island states on stationing Chinese bases there have been thus far successfully countered by Australian diplomacy. These negotiations are linked with PRC’s initiative One Belt One Road, a part of which encompasses the Pacific Ocean. And establishing Chinese military bases in the territory of country-participants is a by-product of the project.
Papua New Guinea could have become a geostrategically convenient location for China’s first military base in the South Pacific. The country lies only 2,000 km away from Australia and provides a convenient access point to the South China Sea, an area where PRC is pursuing its policy of expansion (including military expansion). Historically, China and Papua New Guinea have had close ties. By the middle of the 20th century the biggest Chinese diaspora in the region (approximately 100,000 people), working in the export of timber and natural resources, had made Papua New Guinea its new home. In 1968, the Chinese established Papua New Guinea’s second most powerful party. In 1980 (five years after the nation had gained its independence), the leader of this party, Julius Chan of Chinese and Papua New Guinean descent, became the country’s leader. In fact, in the following twenty years he occupied the post of Prime Minister three more times. By the end of the 20th century, the Chinese had settled in South Pacific islands, rich in forests and natural resources, such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia (better known as Tahiti, where from 2006 to 2011 a member of the Chinese diaspora, Gaston Tong Sang was in power three times).
Negotiations, which started in 2014, on a strategic partnership between PRC and Papua New Guinea, and on repair work of four ports in the cities of Wewak (home to Japan’s largest air base from 1944 to 1945), Kikori (located in the delta of the Kikori River where oil and gas are extracted and transported to the port via oil and gas pipelines), Vanimo (the center of timber export), and on Manus Island were deemed by Australia as a treat to their national security. Manus Island is located 3,000 km from Australia and is home to a deep-water port near very important shipping lanes. During the Second World War, Manus Island housed USA’s biggest military base in the Pacific Ocean, called Lombrum, which was subsequently used by Australia from 1944 to 1974. In 1975, the base became a home to the Maritime Operations Element of the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, once the nation gained its independence. From 2001 to 2017, an offshore Australian immigration detention facility was located on Manus Island.
The island regularly receives generous financial aid from PRC. Canberra’s fears that China would establish a military base on Manus Island intensified after PRC stationed its first external military base in Djibouti, Africa in 2017. And then, in September 2018, Canberra officially announced its plans to repair the Lombrum military base, which had belonged to Australia before 1974. Australia succeeded in its negotiations with Papua New Guinea, which, in November 2018, agreed to Canberra’s offer, because Australians made a more lucrative offer of aid than the one originating from Beijing. But such outlays will have a much more substantial effect on Australia’s national budget vs. the Chinese one.
In 2010, PRC established friendly relations with one of the thorniest nations in the region, Fiji. At a time of political disagreements between Fiji and Australia, New Zealand and the USA stemming from an “illegitimate”, “dictatorial” regime forming in the country under the leadership of the Commander Frank Bainimarama (who was responsible for two military coups in 2000 and 2006), Beijing managed to establish mutually beneficial ties with Suva, making Fiji into another contender for a Chinese military base in its territory. Fiji has also had friendly relations with Russia since 2012, when the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, visited the country. In turn, Fiji’s leader Frank Bainimarama made an official visit to Moscow in 2013.
Regaining its membership in the key regional inter-governmental organization, the Pacific Islands Forum, which, at the initiative of Australia and New Zealand, expelled Fiji in 2009 and then reinstated it back in 2014, has not influenced Fiji’s foreign policy course. For example, in 2016, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation delivered a batch of small arms and ammunition to Fiji in response to the official request made by the nation’s leadership. Soon after, China announced its wishes to reconstruct the military base, Black Rock, in the city of Nadi (home to the largest international airport in Fiji) for its needs. However, in September 2018, Australia offered a much more substantial sum for converting the base into a training center for police officers and peace keeping forces of the South Pacific region. The Fijian side accepted Australia’s offer and the discussion about building a Chinese military base there was postponed.
Finally, in April 2018, global media outlets reported that Vanuatu may become the third contender to house China’s military base. At the time, PRC was in the process of improving docking facilities on Vanuatu’s biggest island, Espiritu Santo, located near the nation’s international airport, which had also received aid from China for its up-grade. As many other states and territories in the South Pacific, Vanuatu is in China’s debt trap. In 2017, loans from Beijing accounted for 50% of the country’s national debt. And despite the fact that Tonga owes PRC 60% of its budget, Vanuatu became the focal point of China’s foreign military policy because of its strategically convenient location. Vanuatu lies 2,000 km away from Australia, 3,000 km from New Zealand and only 600 km from New Caledonia, home to a French military base and a nuclear test site, decommissioned in 1996.
Yet again, Canberra’s generosity exceeded the offer made by China, and the government of Vanuatu promised to sign an all-encompassing agreement with Australia on regional security at the 49th Pacific Islands Forum, held in September 2018. It was indeed signed and dubbed the Boe Declaration (after Nauru, the venue where the agreement was concluded). It is also known as the Biketawa Plus because of its roots in the Biketawa Declaration signed in 2000. The agreement gave Australia and New Zealand the right to bring in its armed forces to disaster zones of country-participants of the Pacific Islands Forum in order to ensure order and stability there. It was the Biketawa Declaration that allowed Australia’s military intervention in the Solomon Islands, where the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was based from 2003 to 2013. The Boe Declaration simply broadened the Forum country-participants’ powers in this regard, with aspects that are important for the region, such as security, climate change and human rights, added in.
Finally, another threat to Australia’s national security, but this time to its information sphere, could have been the participation, by the Chinese company Huawei, in the process of laying underwater telecommunication cables between Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Sydney. Sydney is home to a key telecommunications center, from where all the underwater cables of the South Pacific region originate. Access to these by a private company such as Huawei could have compromised the country’s cyber-security. In 2018, Canberra managed to exclude Huawei from the project by agreeing to cover expenditures amounting to $139 million.
A conclusion may be made here, that at present, substantial diplomatic efforts from the Australian side are being used to contain China’s strategic expansion in the Pacific Ocean. This comes at a significant cost to Australia’s national budget, as Beijing is becoming more and more generous with each offer of financial aid, made to the island states and territories of the South Pacific. In turn, Canberra is forced to match these offers financially as it attempts to retain its security boundaries in this region by any means possible.
Sofia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine – “New Eastern Outlook.”