Written by Joanne Wallis.

If the ‘China threat’ literature is believed, the South Pacific may provide a testing ground for China’s strategic power against the US, which could have destabilising consequences for Australia.  In the worst-case scenario, it could see Australia face a difficult – and potentially alienating – choice between its major economic partner, China, and its major security partner, the US.

The South Pacific region reaches over 30 million square kilometres, 98% of which is ocean, through which cross the air and sea approaches that link Australia to vital partners in North America and Northeast Asia.  While there is presently no external power that is likely to use the region to directly attack Australia, the Japanese advance during the Second World War graphically illustrated Australia’s vulnerability to this scenario.

Since the mid-1970s Australian strategic planners have agreed that the ‘security, stability and cohesion’ of the South Pacific sits only behind a ‘secure Australia’ in the hierarchy of Australia’s strategic interests.  As a result, with budged aid of A$1.104 billion in 2012-2013, Australia provides more than 50% of donor funds to the region.  Working with New Zealand, Australia also provides extensive governance, military and policing assistance.  Australia also has long-standing economic interests in the region, particularly its rich natural resources and relies on the diplomatic support of South Pacific states, most recently in its successful bid to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2012.

The ‘China threat’?

Australia’s significant interests in the South Pacific highlight why talk of a ‘China threat’ gain traction.  There is the suggestion that China has an interest in the region as part of its ‘island chain’ strategy, with rumoured plans for a ‘third island chain’, running from the Aleutian Islands through the South Pacific to Antarctica.  China has also sought access in order to undertake signals intelligence monitoring, most obviously via the satellite tracking station it built in Kiribati in 1997, and allegedly via Chinese fishing fleets.

There are claims that the South Pacific could provide a testing ground for China’s ability to project global power and according to leaked cables, US diplomats think that China wants ‘to demonstrate big-power status in the region’.  Although there is little evidence that China has actively tried to displace Australia and the US from the region, in 2006 Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao observed that: ‘As far as China is concerned, to foster friendship and cooperation with the Pacific island countries is not a diplomatic expediency.  Rather it is a strategic decision’.

Beyond strategy, China is attracted to the South Pacific’s rich natural resources and trade opportunities.  China has also competed with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition in the region.  Although a truce (of sorts) has held since 2008, China and Taiwan have engaged in ‘chequebook diplomacy’ to win favour, which has resulted in China becoming the third-largest aid donor, with grants of US$26.67 million, plus soft loans of US$183.15 million, in 2009.  China’s aid can be attractive, because unlike Australian aid it which is generally conditional on ‘good governance’ reforms, it comes without political strings attached.

China is also said to have the highest number of diplomats in region and there have been increasingly frequent high-level visits by Chinese officials.  China has moved to have the ‘Asia’ group at the United Nations renamed ‘Asia and the Pacific Small Island Developing States’, and is supporting Fiji’s campaign to gain a seat on the Security Council in 2015-2016.  China’s regional diplomacy has been assisted by Australia, New Zealand and the US’ attempts to isolate the Fijian regime after the 2006 coup. In response, the regime adopted a ‘look north’ policy and sought a closer relationship with China, which other South Pacific states have followed.

China has also engaged multilaterally.  Although it has had limited success influencing the Pacific Islands Forum, it has focused on establishing a close relationship with the Melanesian Spearhead Group, by financing the creation of its Secretariat and the building of its headquarters in Vanuatu.  Since Fiji’s suspension from the Forum in 2009, the Group has emerged as an increasingly important organisation, and has taken over the Forum’s role facilitating trade with Fiji.

The US’ rebalance to the Pacific

The US has made efforts to catch-up with Chinese influence in the South Pacific.  The US has a long association with Micronesian territories, which are regarded as a ‘security border’ and which are home to US military bases.  Accordingly, the US runs the annual Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) and the annual multinational humanitarian exercise, the Pacific Partnership, in the region.  The US also works with South Pacific states to address transnational and maritime security issues via its Shiprider program.  After a near withdrawal after the Cold War, the US has also recently resumed a more active diplomatic, aid and trade role, including opening the USAID Pacific Island Regional office in Papua New Guinea in 2011.

Strategic implications for Australia

China’s military inferiority to the US means that there is little risk that China and the US will engage in military competition in the South Pacific.  The risks are also remote that China could use positions in the region to approach the US asymmetrically, or that the US’ presence in Micronesia, which could prevent China’s consolidation of the second chain and inhibit its naval access to the Pacific Ocean, will incite tension.  Despite the predictions of the ‘China threat’ literature, it seems unlikely that Australia will be faced with a strategic choice in the South Pacific in the near future.

In fact, there may be room for optimism.  There is potential for the US and Australia to draw China into a more cooperative approach in the region. Some progress has been made, as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attended a ministerial strategic dialogue in Canberra in 2008, where he agreed to ‘strengthen regional cooperation to mutually promote regional peace and stability’.  More recently, China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai agreed that China is ‘ready to exchange views, to compare respective practice and where possible and feasible, we’re open to work with them [the US and others] for the benefit of the recipient countries’.

There is promising evidence of emerging cooperation.  At the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum meeting it was announced that China will partner with New Zealand to improve water provision in the Cook Islands.  Then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton welcomed this announcement, declaring that: ‘New Zealand sets a good example for working with China’.  The US and China are in talks to cooperate on development programs in Timor-Leste, which may form a model for cooperation in the South Pacific, and the US announced that it will invite China to participate in the 2014 RIMPAC exercise.

Efforts at enhanced cooperation between Australia, the US and China could minimize the likelihood of strategic competition in the South Pacific, and maximise the coordination and effectiveness of aid.  These proposals could be developed on a relatively small and low-risk scale in the South Pacific, so that the lessons learnt and the confidence gained may benefit broader Asia-Pacific stability and security.

Joanne Wallis is a lecturer and convener in the Asia-Pacific Security program, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Joanne tweets @AsiaPacSecurity.