Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ripples through the Pacific islands region
Majuro-- Unbeknownst to Vladimir Putin and most of the world, the Russian president put his country's nuclear arsenal on alert a day before the Marshall Islands had its day of remembrance for nuclear victims.
It was on Bikini Atoll where the U.S. tested the largest atomic bomb in existence at the height of the Cold War. It didn't just devastate the atoll and make it uninhabitable, the residents suffered for decades from nuclear poisoning and its effects.
Far away Russia – and Ukraine for that matter – has virtually no economic or diplomatic presence here, operating mostly out of Manila and Canberra. But when European leaders said the invasion would have a global “ripple effect,” the Pacific islands region knew it wouldn’t evade them. In fact, almost immediately the Federated States of Micronesia severed diplomatic relations with Russia over the invasion. Fiji’s UN ambassador quickly condemned the invasion, as did the Solomon Islands and Australia. Most recently and concerning, however, Russia tested missiles on the Russian-held, Japanese-claimed Kuril Islands off Hokkaido. Two weeks later, it withdrew from bilateral peace treaty talks with Japan to formally end World War II, over their standoff here. Japan joined the G7 in sanctioning 76 Russian individuals, seven banks and 12 other bodies.
The Pacific region has a lot more at stake than global leaders are willing to acknowledge, however. Besides being a buffer zone to the Anglosphere (remember AUKUS?), much of the region recognizes Taiwan. In response, China has been only too happy to “financially assist” the Pacific nations in recent years. The Pacific islands region is heavily reliant on global supply chains disrupted by the conflict. According to the Asian Development Bank, as much as 75 percent of these economies are service industries. Agriculture and industry are tiny and heavily concentrated in a few key areas and sectors, such as fishing and coconuts, which are two of the biggest. On top of that, Covid-19 has devastated many local economies. Pacific island nations like the Marshall Islands had, and still maintain, the strictest restrictions in the world even though they have extremely high vaccination rates (as much as 99 percent in some countries) and among the lowest infection rates. The Solomon Islands recorded its first case only recently. Shops have faced shortages and limitations on the number of products one can buy, not to mention medical supplies.
Long sitting on the Pacific sidelines, China spotted an opportunity. In 2014, Xi Jinping announced his “Asia-Pacific Dream” of cooperation and then launched a tour of the South Pacific countries. Its main methods of interference consist of undermining democratic institutions, creating economic dependence, and stifling criticism of Beijing. The South Pacific is extremely vulnerable on all three fronts. According to the 2021 State of Democracy report, the three Pacific island nations assessed — Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands — were all ranked as “weak democracies.” According to the global corruption watchdog Transparency International, more than half of Pacific islanders believe corruption is a significant problem at home. The financial lure of China increased post-Covid-19 and is having diplomatic ramifications. After large cash dumps in 2019, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China. Fiji and the Cook Islands received loans from China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2020, after being knocked back by traditional Western partners, and Vanuatu went straight to the Chinese government for financial support in 2021.
Beijing opened a consulate as part of its embassy in Tonga last year for its 4,000 citizens who live there. China’s ambassador then signed over more than $24 million in Tongan currency for more building. The money was to fund a new bridge to connect the remote east side of the main island, where some of the best farms sit in sleepy villages, to the port in the capital. And who is building it? Not underemployed Tongans, but blue jump-suited men from China. Tonga also received $11 million for the construction of its St. George Palace, which equaled 2.6 percent of its GDP.
The extent to which China can help Russia sidestep sanctions is both debatable and probably minimal, but it does mean Russia will no longer work against China on Taiwan or its other ventures here in the Pacific. A weak Russia suits China because it would have little choice but to kowtow to Xi. Putin would be more likely to give him access to northern Russian ports, to accommodate China’s growing interests in Central Asia, and to supply it with cheap oil and gas among other things.
As mentioned, Russia, too, has its own interests in the North Pacific and China may end up taking its side. It probably wasn’t Putin’s intention, but his invasion of Ukraine didn’t just ripple through to our shores, it is stirring up the region. The FSM severing ties with Russia may not look like anything to most observers but it's actually an indicator of the worst future scenario: China and the U.S. engaged in a hot conflict in the Pacific with the possible involvement of other big players, like Russia and Japan. China’s approach to the Ukraine invasion arises from Xi’s conviction that the 21st century will be defined by the competition between China and the U.S. For China, what happens in Ukraine’s shelled cities is a skirmish in this contest. Russia doesn’t need to win big, per se, but a loss would embarrass China for allying too closely with Putin and cause it to make a huge reassessment of its Pacific dreams. Any historian of World War II can tell the reader some of the worst fighting occurred in the Pacific. And here in Majuro, the locals will tell the reader what the worst-case military “tests” or conflicts will look like. The collective West needs to hold firm its unity and stand up to China throughout this conflict, lest it actually spill over to the South Pacific.
Dr James Pearce is an instructor of Social Science at the Liberal Arts Department of College of the Marshall Islands. He is the author of The Use of History in Putin's Russia.