In the shadow of geopolitical conflicts
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
How China triggers domestic division in Pacific island nations
Against the backdrop of crystal-clear blue waters, China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles are making their threatening presence felt. Meanwhile, the United States is in a cramming mode, ramping up its forces in the Pacific islands region in a bid to outrace Beijing’s relentless military expansion.
The U.S. has joined forces with Australia and the United Kingdom, forging the AUKUS treaty that will bring nuclear submarines to Australia to thwart China’s threats.
The otherwise idyllic region is becoming a playground for the world’s superpower war games amid China’s growing clout in the Blue Pacific.
“Whether we like it or not, we are sucked into the vortex of this intense rivalry that is ongoing,” former Kiribati president Anote Tong said during a virtual forum hosted by Reuters’ NEXT Interview moderated by Kirsty Needham. “The question is what is our role in all of this.”
The U.S. has itself to blame, Tong said, noting that it has shunned the Pacific island region for many years.
In the early 2000s, Tong was part of the Pacific Islands Forum delegation that visited Washington, D.C. “We were trying to get an audience with the president, but we did not,” he said. “There was a strong feeling that we have not seen the U.S. being active in our part of the world for a long time.”
The years of U.S. neglect had opened the door wide open for China to come in and it “came in very strong,” Tong said.
China’s foray into the Pacific islands region presents another layer of geopolitical complexity. Its conflict with Taiwan has created regional division and triggered internal fissures in some island nations.
In Solomon Islands, regional observers partly attributed the violent protests in Honiara’s Chinatown to a pent-up resentment against Chinese investors, who received preferential treatment from the government.
The protests were speculated to have been instigated by supporters from the province of Malaita, which was opposed to the Solomon Islands’ decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.
Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute, an international policy think tank, said the geopolitical tensions may not be the major trigger of the arson and riots, but they have contributed to the spark.
Transform Aqorau, founding director of Pacific Catalyst and a legal adviser to the Marshall Islands, said the protests were a “culmination of a number of flashpoints” that were “intertwined with the complexity of the China-Taiwan conflict.”
“Indigenous Solomon Island business owners do not have the same access to our leaders. The political governance arrangements in Solomon Islands are shaped by the cozy co-existence between foreign loggers, miners and businesses,” Aqorau wrote in an article published by Development Policy. “The influence of non-state actors in shaping political undercurrents in Solomon Islands cannot be ignored.”
Tong agreed that the violent event in Solomon Islands was “part of superpower rivalry.”
“There is a local feeling that the change of relations to China and kicking out Taiwan was not entirely popular with the people,” he said.
Tong warned that Kitribati “is on the verge of seeing that happen” in that country as well. “Our relationship with China was renewed in 2019 and there are already expressions of discontent,” he added.
When the Kiribati government imposed the Covid-19-related lockdown, many lost their jobs due to restrictions. “Yet, they see Chinese nationals freely coming in and out of the country. Some people are questioning why the Chinese are getting special treatment when people are being locked out.”
Under Tong’s presidency, Kiribati built a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. “In 2003, I was responsible for recognizing Taiwan but we did not severe our relations with China,” he said.
Tong said he came under fire from Australia for forging diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but defended his foreign policy, seeing it as a sound economic decision. “It was about having relations with a country that is willing to provide assistance and Taiwan was willing to provide at the time.”
Kiribati cut off ties with Taiwan days after Solomon Islands did. China has since drawn up plans to upgrade an airstrip and bridge on Kanton, one of Kiribati’s remote islands. The undertaking, however, does not sit well with opposition lawmakers, who demanded information about project details.
While other Pacific island nations are torn between China and Taiwan, the Federated States of Micronesia has sealed its 30-year-old ties with Beijing. And while being wooed by the U.S. and China, the FSM positions itself in the neutral zone.
As far as President David Panuelo is concerned, the balancing act has been quite manageable. “Never have I felt that the FSM is feeling sandwiched between the two superpowers. We highly cherish our sovereignty,” Panuelo said at Reuters’ virtual forum.
Panuelo said the FSM’s foreign policy decisions are consistent with his administration’s own strategy. “First and foremost, our national interest comes first,” he said.
The FSM, which is freely associated with the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association, has also aligned itself with Beijing through its one-China policy.
Panuelo said the FSM’s relationships with Washington and Beijing are well-defined and are conflict-free.
“Our alliance with the U.S. is political. We have a defense relationship with the U.S. and that is a clear alliance that we have formed,” he said. “Whereas with China, it’s purely an economic and technical cooperation and cannot go beyond that.”
“China respects our policy. We deal with the U.S. under a very close treaty, where defense is also delegated by the U.S. under our Constitution,” he added.
The U.S. oversees the FSM’s defense. In turn, Panuelo said, “we also endorse the Indo-Pacific strategy, which must preserve the rules-based international order, and that is important for the sake of the rule of law and freedom of navigation.”
While receiving a significant amount of coronavirus-relief aid from the U,S,, the FSM has been a recipient of Beijing’s largess, which poured in during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their cozy relationship is being frowned on by the anti-China camp.
China’s cash diplomacy has raised warnings about the risk of debt problems in the Pacific islands.
But Panuelo said his administration has a cautious debt policy. “We don’t get loans from any country despite the assistance that they give. We must preserve our sovereignty to make sure that the decisions we make are also in the best interest of our citizens. That has been the modus operandi of my administration,” he said
Just the same, Panuelo recognized that the growing tension between the U.S. and China is threatening regional stability.
“If we decide that our relations, in a way, result in unhealthy competition, I said to the U.S. and China, they can compete on a healthy basis in the region, but to be mindful that we don’t like and we do not appreciate being disrupted in the way they are doing things in the Pacific,” the president said.
“So as a global community I believe that we must all endorse rules-based international order,” he added.
However, China’s tentacles seem to have started creating trouble in one of the FSM’s states.
Yap Gov. Henry Falan, who is known to oppose the national government’s alliance with China, was removed from office last month.
A public petition is seeking Falan’s reinstatement. Many speculate that Falan’s ouster was part of political orchestration by the state’s lawmakers, who are believed to be doing business with China.
In 2019, Falan voided a $25-million proposal by Kingma Holdings, a Chinese developer, to build a 100-room hotel in Yap.
One in a line of attempts to impede Falan’s agenda and programs and remove him from office, the unstated basis for the legislature’s actions is seen by many as the support of Chinese developers from PRC by Speaker Vincent Figir, who is also chairman of the Yap-China Friendship Association.
Falan, on the other hand, has publicly supported U.S. involvement in Yap and invited the military to establish a presence on the island. The military is currently preparing to renovate the island’s airport with a $37 million grant from the Federal Aviation Authority that will allow larger planes to land.
Lt. Gov. Jesse Salalu was sworn in last month as the new governor.
In the line of succession, Figir is one seat away to the executive branch if both the governor and lt governor seats became vacant.
Dame Meg Taylor, former executive director of the Pacific Islands Forum, said “China is not a new phenomenon. They have a history of relationships with the Pacific islands.”
“Some countries are welcoming of China’s presence,” she said.
As the head of the Forum, Taylor said, part of her job was to appease China while the Forum accommodated Taiwan. “There were some difficulties I had to negotiate with China for six years,” she said.
Currently, the Pacific island region has been receiving attention not just from the U.S. but from the European Union as well. “Everybody comes with a price tag,” Taylor said. “It may not be financial, but they have to pay it back in some ways.” (With additional reports from Joyce McClure)