Surviving the challenges of progress

The South Pacific reminds of the movie “South Pacific,” a musical story released in 1958 about a US Navy nurse who falls for a middle-aged French plantation owner. The movie is set on a volcanic island Bali Hai, which is based on the real island Ambae. It is located in what is now the Republic of Vanuatu (the former French colony of New Hebrides).

South Pacific is divided into three regions: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. The most popular are the islands of Tahiti and Fiji. Tahiti is part of Polynesia, which belongs to France, while Fiji is a republic that formerly belonged to the British Empire and is part of Micronesia, and the Republic of Vanuatu in Melanesia.

As you can see the South Pacific is vast in an area that covers 11 million square miles in three regions with their distinct languages and cultures, stretching from the top of Australia to the Hawaiian Islands. They’re all part of the Malayo-Polynesian expansion (a subfamily of the Austronesians) that migrated from Taiwan 5,500 years ago. They spread from Madagascar to the Hawaiian Islands, 11,000 miles away from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and down to the South Pacific Ocean.

Nobody was paying attention to the South Pacific Islands until now with China leading the way by enticing them with development loans for infrastructure. Some of them have fallen into China’s debt-trap diplomacy like Vanuatu, Micronesia, and Tonga. In particular, Vanuatu – an idyllic country consisting of a group of small islands — is now negotiating the establishment of a Djibouti-like “logistical supply center.” In China’s playbook, this logistical supply center would eventually be expanded to accommodate troops, aircraft, warships, and missiles that can reach Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Many believe that China’s military ambitions in Vanuatu would come about just like in Djibouti – step by step, until ultimately it would become a fully armed air, naval, and missile base with the ability to provide logistical support as well.

Another country that China is eyeing is Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is just north of Australia. The two countries are currently negotiating the possibility of a military base in PNG. It’s interesting to note that during the early years of the Obama administration, PNG offered to host US naval and air bases for free! The US declined the offer. And now comes China.

Over the past three years, China’s footprint in the South Pacific has become so large while its behavior in other parts of the world has become more assertive. It has a cumulative population of 13 million people under 14 sovereign countries and seven territories that span over 15% of the world’s surface.

China’s attempt to project power in the South Pacific is making Australia, United Kingdom, the US, and France nervous. The UK and France still have some possessions in the South Pacific while the US has treaty obligations with several countries. And now China is attempting to gain foothold in Paradise.

Too close for comfort
Some of the Pacific Islands are very close to Australia, which is separated by a mere 6 kilometers from Papua-New Guinea, and only 2,000 kilometers separate Australia and Vanuatu. Palau is only 1,300 kilometers from Guam, a US territory.

China has also dramatically increased its aid activities. Between 2006 and 2017 China provided almost $1.5 billion in foreign aid to the Pacific Islands region through a mixture of grants and development loans. And this made US planners nervous. The Americans finally realized that they had neglected the Pacific Island countries for so long — to China’s delight. The Pacific Island countries gravitated toward China simply because of a lack of engagement by the US.

In trying to catch up, the US military is seeking $27 billion through 2027 to support the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI). It was established last year to bolster military presence in the region west of the First Island Chain – countries with millions of square miles of ocean space with pretty small populations – that are referred to as “critical geostrategic ground.” Militarily, the US Indo-Pacific Command is responsible for the region’s Freely Associated States (FAS) – Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands – that allow them to conduct activity there in exchange for defending them. The First Island Chain runs through Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. They are America’s first line of defense against Chinese adventurism. They offer the capacity to “support crisis and contingency operations” by hosting command-and-control nodes, dispersal locations, and fuel and munitions storage,” which are critically necessary to maintaining American power in the Pacific region.

But China has been seeking to gain foothold economically in these little island republics with a big footprint for over a decade now. Surmise it to say; what follows would be the introduction of Chinese military forces in the region. It’s the “economy first, military next” playbook, a strategy that is known as charm offensive or “soft power.” And it is working. But there is a caveat to the Chinese strategy: the economic beneficiary usually ends up indebted to China beyond its means. And that’s when the Chinese military comes in taking over some infrastructures and converting them into military bases just like it did in Djibouti. It’s called debt-trap diplomacy. And now, with Chinese economic grants and aids given to Pacific Island countries, China has been focusing its engagement in the Pacific islands like Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Tonga, and Vanuatu.

A recent news report said that China’s about to build a major fishing port in Daru, PNG. But there is hardly any fish to catch, not big enough for a commercial fishery site. So what is it for? Sounds like another Djibouti-type project. But once the Chinese comes, what’s next? Using the Djibouti playbook, it would seem that China would eventually build a naval base. It would sit on top of the narrow – but strategically located – Torres Strait, which is only six kilometers away from Australia, and poses a threat to Australia. Indeed, a strong Chinese presence in PNG is a major concern to Australia and her Western allies. Just imagine Chinese warships and submarines docked at Daru? That’s too close for comfort.

US vs China
In the Pacific Islands region, rivalry began to unravel between the US and its allies and partners on one side and China on the other over influence in the Pacific Islands. The US has formal treaty obligation with the FAS of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia that permits the US unrestricted military access in exchange for visa-free entry to the US and generous financial contributions.

Meanwhile, most Pacific Islanders are concerned about China’s coercive economic behavior, debt-trap diplomacy, and heavy-handed interference in internal affairs. China has been accused of illegal fishing by Palau, which is of great concern to the Pacific Islanders who are protective of their fishing rights in the vast and resource-rich South Pacific.

Given these potential flashpoints, the US, Australia, and New Zealand strive to develop good relationship with the Pacific Island countries who have formed a collective grouping known as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the premier regional political organization in the Pacific Islands that bounds the 18 nations in the region, including Australia and New Zealand, of which 12 are members of the United Nations. So far, they have been able to raise their collective voice on international issues, from climate change to illegal fishing to transnational crime. In particular, climate change is very important to PIF due to the rising seas that are the result of climate change and global warming, which causes many small islands to sink under rising seas. It also causes the migration of Pacific Islanders to sparsely populated Australia who welcomes them with open arms.

At the end of the day, the Biden administration has a lot of work to do to catch up to China in influencing the Pacific Islands, politically, economically, culturally, and militarily.

And from the idyllic paradise in South Pacific would emerge a vibrant and progressive society of diverse people who all originated from the Malayo-Polynesian expansion that began in Northern
Philippines 5,500 years ago.

But progress could create problems. Can the South Pacific Islanders survive the challenges of progress? Perhaps it’s better to leave them alone to enjoy the natural beauty of the islands. Like their forebearers, the Malayo-Polynesians, they too would have to deal with their problems in their own ways and traditions.