Why are China and the US competing for influence in Pacific island nations?

Why are China and the US competing for influence in Pacific island nations?

Competition is intensifying between China and the United States in the South Pacific, and each of them seeks to generate influence among island nations that have not received much attention from the superpowers since World War II.

The stakes increased in 2022, when the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with Beijing, the first in the region, raising fears in Australia and New Zealand, both US allies, about a possible Chinese military base in the neighborhood.

That sparked a flurry of regional diplomacy and promises of aid and cooperation in areas such as climate change, as well as the appointment of new envoys, the opening of new embassies and invitations to the White House.

The rivalry is once again on display as the Solomon Islands prepare for elections that will help decide the nation's future loyalties.

What countries are there?

There are about 14 independent Pacific island nations located mostly around or below the equator. Only one, Papua New Guinea, has a population of more than one million. In addition to the Solomon Islands, others include Vanuatu, Samoa and Kiribati. YesHis combined gross domestic product of about $36 billion is roughly that of the U.S. state of Vermont.

Some island countries describe their foreign policy as “friend to all, enemy to none,” but they also have long-standing ties to the United States and its allies in the region, Australia and New Zealand.

How is China approaching?

An increasingly assertive China has been paying more attention to the region as it tries to raise its profile on the world stage. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare and extensive trip to the region in May 2022 that included a ministerial meeting between China and the Pacific islands in Fiji.

In 2023, China named Qian Bo its inaugural special envoy to the Pacific Islands. As in other emerging markets, China has become one of the largest national lenders to the states in the area.

According to Chinese government figures, its trade with the region (mainly seafood, timber and minerals) expanded to US$5.3 billion in 2021, from just US$153 million in 1992. The outreach is part of China's effort to build a network of developing countries to bring their voices to global forums like the United Nations, where the United States can typically count on support from its European, East Asian and other allies.

That also helps the Chinese government isolate Taiwan, the democratically governed island that China considers a renegade province. In 2019, Beijing scored a major victory when the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

Western concern

Western countries do not want to see such strategically located islands drifting towards China's orbit. One of the most important battles of World War II was fought on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, as part of a US campaign to stop Japan's southward advance. Any hostile military presence could threaten Australian and New Zealand trade routes.

Solomon Islands Race

Chinese diplomats had been pressuring Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare for years with stronger economic ties. Still, when a draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked in March 2022, it appeared to catch Australia and the United States off guard.

Sogavare has insisted China will not be allowed to build a military base and accused Western critics of treating Solomon Islanders like armed children. But the draft seemed to give the Chinese navy a safe harbor.