China continues to press other nations to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in exchange for economic assistance, thereby expanding its influence. Exercising caution regarding Chinese moves in the South Pacific Ocean is indispensable.
The Solomon Islands and Kiribati, two island nations in the South Pacific, have decided to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and to establish diplomatic relations with China. This has left Taiwan with only 15 countries that have diplomatic relations with it.
Obviously, China is shoring up its diplomatic offensive aimed at internationally isolating Taiwan. In the past, China and Taiwan fiercely promoted assistance-based diplomacy in the South Pacific. In recent years, however, China has been making its presence more strongly felt in the region, backed by its own economic strength.
According to an Australian research institution, China extended $1.78 billion (about ¥192 billion) in assistance for South Pacific countries over a 10-year period starting in 2006. It has by now grown into a major donor country in the region, following Australia and the United States.
China’s bid seems to indicate a strategy of confronting the United States and Australia, both of which play leading roles in maintaining order in the region.
There are concerns about a situation in which China’s advances in the South Pacific will heighten regional tensions.
In pursuit of its national goal of becoming a great maritime power, China is expanding the scope of its activities to include the high seas, such as in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Beijing has been criticized for its unilateral maritime advances made in violation of international rules, as well its loans extended in disregard for the fiscal conditions of recipient nations.
Defense cooperation needed
Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged not to turn the South China sea into a “military foothold.” Nonetheless, his country has set up radar and missiles on man-made islands that were constructed by reclaiming land from rock reefs, a move that has put freedom of navigation at risk there.
Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, has found it impossible to repay its debts to China now, and this has caused Sri Lanka to, in effect, hand over to China its rights and interests in Hambantota Port, one of the largest ports in South Asia.
It is difficult to assert that no such problem will arise in the South Pacific. Many island nations there are more and more economically reliant on China. In Vanuatu, China is proceeding with a harbor improvement project, and this has sparked speculation that Beijing may use a port there for military purposes.
The South Pacific Ocean functions as a sea-lane linking Asia to the Americas. The area is close to Hawaii and Guam, where the U.S. military is operating bases as strategic outposts in the Asia-Pacific region. The area is also important for the free and open Indo-Pacific vision, an initiative shared by such countries as Japan, the United States and Australia.
The United States, Australia and Japan need to be more strongly involved with South Pacific nations, with a view to preventing a situation in which China may strengthen its military activities using island countries there as footholds and shake the regional stability.
In addition to economic assistance, security cooperation is important. The United States and Australia have improved and expanded a naval base in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea while also bolstering a military exercise in surrounding areas. Efforts should be continued to extend assistance conducive to improving the defense capacity of island nations.