From small diplomatic measures to a doubling of trade, China’s interests in Pacific Island nations have expanded in the past decade.
Now, in a world of growing geopolitical instability and tension over Taiwan, China is in the position of being an enduring partner to the region.
China's former ambasador to the US recently pointed to Australia treating the Pacific as a “backyard,” still holding a view stuck in the past, while China wants a more ‘modern’ relationship with its neighbours.
What began for China as an economic relationship with investments in the fisheries and mining sector has expanded to more comprehensive economic, security and diplomatic ties, particularly following the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Beijing has also expanded its soft diplomacy, offering Pacific Islanders education in areas such as law, agriculture and journalism.
Before the economic ties there were historical ones. People of Chinese heritage have been a presence across the Pacific Islands for over 200 years as traders, speculators, indentured labourers, and political refugees moved from the south and southeast of China.
Prior to 1975, most Pacific Island countries formerly recognised Taiwan (or The Republic of China). But Fiji and Samoa became the first to develop diplomatic relations in 1975. Since then eight other regional states have switched from Taiwan and developed formal relations with Beijing: Papua New Guinea (1976), Vanuatu (1982), the Federated States of Micronesia (1989), the Cook Islands (1997), Tonga (1998), Niue (2007), the Solomon Islands (2019) and Kiribati (2019).
The Chinese government labels its increasing presence as an expression of “South-South cooperation”: a movement that prioritises the transfer of knowledge, resources and technology between countries in the Global South. Chinese officials often accuse Western countries of condescension towards Pacific Islanders.
The step up of state engagement began in Fiji in 2006, at the first China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Leaders Forum. The gathering of senior politicians set a tone for economic cooperation through grants, loans and preferential trade.
‘Visit diplomacy’ has been a key indicator of increasing Chinese state interest in the region. Since 2014, there have been 32 face-to-face meetings between the Pacific heads of government and Chinese President Xi Jinping — an unprecedented level of contact compared to Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin (1993–2003) and Hu Jintao (2003–2013).
The 2014 meeting in Nadi, Fiji, between Xi and political leaders from eight Pacific Island countries was a notable event in Beijing’s expansion. Xi welcomed the dignitaries to “take a ride on the Chinese ‘express train’ of development” under the BRI’s Maritime Silk Road. All of Beijing’s regional diplomatic partners have since signed BRI memoranda of understanding. Foreign direct investment also rose by 175 percent in the two years after the visit, with 70 percent of the US$2.8 billion invested directed to PNG.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s tour of seven Pacific Island states in May 2022 was the latest instance of visit diplomacy – showing how China’s presence has moved beyond economic ties alone.
Wang proposed that China’s 10 diplomatic partners sign up to a multilateral “Common Development Vision”, including cooperation over law enforcement, fisheries planning, developing internet capacity, new Confucius Institutes, US$2 million in funding for COVID-19 relief and 2500 scholarships. The deal also proposed a China-Pacific Islands Free Trade Area that by 2025 would double the volume of bilateral trade from 2018 levels.
While the attempt fell short due to reservations among leaders. Wang secured 52 bilateral economic and security deals following the visit, consolidating Beijing’s status as a regional partner.
Between 1950 and 2012, Oceania received approximately US$1.8 billion in Chinese aid. China was the second-largest aid donor, after Australia, to the Pacific region in the latest available data between 2011 and 2018. Just over two-thirds of aid disbursed was as interest-free or concessional loans and the remainder was in the form of grants. Fiji received roughly a quarter of China’s regional aid, second to PNG, which received 32 percent. There has since been a 15 percent decline in Chinese aid from US$2.9 billion in 2018 to US$2.44 billion in 2019.
From 2000 to 2012, a year before the inception of the BRI, the value of trade between China and its diplomatic Pacific partners increased from $US248 million to $US1.77 billion. The value of bilateral trade with Pacific Islands Forum members (excluding Australia and New Zealand) almost doubled, from US$4.5 billion in 2012 to US$8.6 billion in 2018. The Marshall Islands, PNG and Fiji are China’s top export destinations. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of Chinese tourists to Oceania increased from 55,000 to 225,000.
In the past 10 years, China has added two new diplomatic partners and maintains embassies in eight of the 10 countries it has formal relations with (the Cook Islands and Niue are the exceptions).
There are currently six Confucius Institutes across the Pacific, two in Fiji and one in each of the Cook Islands, PNG, Samoa and Vanuatu. Suva, the capital of Fiji, is home to one of the world’s 20 China Cultural Centres – venues built to promote “cooperation and communication … by building a bridge for people around the globe to get acquainted with China”. China has also expanded the availability of scholarships and training for students and journalists in the past 10 years.
As these ties grow and become normalised, it is important to note the Chinese presence is at the invitation of Pacific Islanders. It’s influenced by Pacific security concerns, such as livelihoods and the climate crisis.
The April 2022 security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China, the exact details of which remain undisclosed, included the option for the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, to request the presence of Chinese security forces to maintain social order and ensure the safety of Chinese personnel and projects. The aim to protect commercial interests was an indicator of how fixed Chinese companies (state or private) had become in infrastructure development.
While some commentators have claimed the agreement with the Solomon Islands could lead to the establishment of a People’s Liberation Army base, it comes after years of Chinese military and police aid through support and training.
As ‘traditional’ partners such as the United States and Australia reevaluate Pacific policies to limit Chinese presence, they do so in a world where Pacific Island nation governments can determine their own future in response to emerging geopolitical competition for influence.
(Henryk Szadziewski is a lecturer at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He has a Ph.D. in Geography from his research focused on Chinese state interventions in Oceania and US policy towards the Pacific Islands)