Why is China so interested in Australia’s neighbourhood?

China has agreed to pump in millions of dollars to boost infrastructure in the island nation. Of course, there aren’t any free lunches in the world.

By Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd)

Robert Gilpin’s quip “There is a pressing need to integrate the study of international economics with the study of international politics to deepen our comprehension of the forces at work in the world” holds apt for the just concluded Quad Summit on May 24, 2022, in Tokyo, Japan which apart from being a super success has rattled China like never before.

With a commitment of US$ 50 billion of infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific region in the next 5 years, the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness in the recent Tokyo Quad Summit, China knew its dreams and desires of hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region had been dealt a serious blow.

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Quad Leaders Summit in Tokya (Image Source: Twitter)
Quad Leaders Summit in Tokyo (Image Source: Twitter)

Not wasting any time further, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, embarked on an 8-nation tour of the Pacific Islands from May 26-June 04, 2022 commencing from the Solomon Islands with whom China recently signed a security pact. In his itinerary are also visits to Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

The Indo-Pacific region is of vital importance to China for its security and commercial shipping and the 15 island nations in this region are called the Pacific Islands which are sub-grouped into three ethnogeographic groupings – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

Melanesia has four nations – Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Micronesia comprises seven nations – Palau, Nauru, Guam, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Northern Mariana Islands. Polynesia is made up of four nations – New Zealand, Tonga, Tuvalu and Samoa.

The Pacific Islands have a combined population of about 13 million (1.3 crores) and span a little over 15% of the world’s surface.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong meeting with Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama (Image Source: Twitter)

The distance between Australia and Papua New Guinea is just 6 kilometres and the atolls in eastern Kiribati are 3000 kilometres from Hawaii and 1300 kilometres from Guam, both of which are important US military bases.

During World War II the geostrategic importance of the Pacific Islands was critical since they were important for military force movements and for maintaining the logistical supply lines. For six decades after the end of World War II till 2005, this region saw less activity as China did not take much interest in this region and the USA had complete supremacy over this area.

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Pacific Islands (Image source: Kahuroa - Wikipedia)
Pacific Islands (Image source: Kahuroa – Wikipedia)

Things drastically changed in the Pacific Islands from 2006 onwards when China started an aggressive commercial, aid and diplomatic activity in this region. Between 2006-2017 China provided US$ 1.5 billion in aid to the Pacific Islands and the Chinese construction activities in this region were US$ 958 million.

Geographically of the four oceans – Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, the Arctic Ocean is of least interest to the USA as it is frozen for nine months of a year and the Atlantic Ocean is safe as it is between the USA and western Europe, majority of whom are NATO members. It is the Indian and the Pacific Oceans that the USA is most worried about as China has been steadily increasing its influence in this region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meeting Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa (Image Source: Twitter)

The USA has repeatedly voiced concern that China is seeking to establish a military base in the Pacific. The statement by the US National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell on January 10, 2022, that the Pacific region is most likely to see a strategic surprise from China proved to be correct when China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands on April 20, 2022.

This announcement shook the entire world as now China has a foothold in the island nation which played a decisive role in World War II. China can now use this foothold to block shipping routes whenever the need arises.

Even as the shock waves did not subside, the Solomon Islands signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a Chinese firm on April 30, 2022, to make a regional aeronautical hub in the island nation.

China has agreed to pump in millions of dollars to boost up infrastructure in the island nation. Of course, there aren’t any free lunches in the world. The take-over of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the Gwadar port in Pakistan by China for failure to repay the Chinese loans are a stark reminder of what awaits the Solomon Islands in the near future.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi tmeeting Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa (Image Source: Twitter)

In May 2021 China upgraded a disused airstrip on the Kanton Island of Kiribati, which is strategically located midway between Asia and the Americas, which was a major stop for commercial trans-Pacific flights and a military aircraft base during World War II. 

China has loaned money to 166 nations of the world, of which 40 nations are reeling under its debt trap. This predatory tactics by China in entrapping economically weaker nations by the financial largesse it offers, make the debt trapped nations impossible to wriggle out of its strangulation.

The importance of the Pacific Islands can also be gauged from the fact that the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken visited Fiji on February 12, 2022, the first such visit by a US Secretary of State in 36 years.

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken’s Fiji visit (Image Source: Twitter)

The game for control of the strategic Pacific Islands between the USA and China is now in full force and fury with China’s renewed interest in this area.

Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic words “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe” has a great bearing on the precarious geopolitical scenario that the Pacific Islands find themselves in.

Contributing Author: Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd) retired from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army and is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur. He is an M.Tech in Structures and has also done MBA and LLB. The views expressed are personal. 

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