On May 26, 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi began a landmark 10-day tour that included visits to seven independent countries in Oceania – the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, as well as East Timor. This development has greatly troubled the traditional players in the South Pacific – the US, Australia and New Zealand – who are now trialing unsuccessful resistance to China’s assertive rise in their traditional sphere of influence. And whereas previously Beijing only sought to expand trade and economic cooperation with the small island countries of Oceania, it is now looking at military involvement in the world’s largest region.
After World War II, having been rid of the Japanese threat with the help of the US, which has remained Australia’s staunch strategic ally in the Pacific ever since, Canberra established its “line of defense” on its eastern maritime frontier, which covered most of Melanesia. Today, this South Pacific sub-region comprises the four largest states in Oceania – the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea – which together possess 90% of all natural resources in Oceania, have their own currencies and have established an intergovernmental trade and economic alliance, MSG.
It was facilitated access to natural resources that Wang Yi had as one of his main objectives when planning his visit to these countries, where Chinese infrastructure facilities have recently been established as part of the Maritime Silk Route project, and where plans have been secretly nurtured to place Chinese military bases there since 2018.
So far, Canberra has managed to neutralize the critical for Australia’s defense issue of the arrival of Chinese military bases in Melanesia by overriding Chinese offers with more lucrative promises that Oceania’s leaders still believe. But in an effort to play on the principle that “a river cuts through rock,” in April 2022 Beijing succeeded in signing a security cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands, a key state for Australian defense policy with a population of 700,000, under which China could now deploy a military contingent there if it so desired, just 2,000 km off Australian coast. However, according to Wang Yi, who claimed at a meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Jeremiah Manele in the Solomon Islands capital on May 26, the PRC will not do so. It is interesting to note that the Solomon Islands was the first country in Oceania to be visited by the Chinese foreign minister as part of his Pacific tour. As a reminder, the Solomon Islands nearly went into civil war in the 2000s, which Australia managed to contain by sending in the RAMSI peacekeeping mission, which was there from 2003 to 2017.
In addition to the Solomon Islands, candidates to host Chinese military bases could include the poorest nations of Oceania – Kiribati, Samoa and Tonga, which have long owed China an unrecoverable debt. Such a turn of events fits in with the plans of Wang Yi, who has stated his desire to sign a comprehensive strategic agreement with the countries of Oceania during his tour.
The president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David W. Panuelo, has categorically opposed such an agreement: his country is in free association with the US, uses the US dollar as its official currency and wishes to strengthen the US military presence on its territory, in the style of Guam, which has the largest concentration of US military bases and other defense facilities in Oceania. In his letter to the 21 heads of states and dependent territories in Oceania, Panuelo said the Chinese proposal for a comprehensive defense pact should be rejected, as it could trigger a new round of “Cold War” between the West and the PRC. With the interests of the great nuclear powers at stake, and with Australia joining the AUKUS nuclear defense alliance in 2021, the smaller countries of Oceania are better off maintaining their current balance with the powerful regional players and not attempting foreign policy moves that undermine the established architecture.
But his voice is unlikely to be heard: there is now a huge split among the countries of Oceania, with another division of spheres of influence between Australia, the US, the UK, which left the EU in 2021 and now has its own active foreign policy, and China, which wants to enter the big geopolitical game in the Pacific through tiny oceanic states.
Another state on Wang Yi’s tour is the world’s poorest country, East Timor (or Timor-Leste), located at the junction of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, just 600 km from Australian shores. President José Ramos-Horta favors expanding ties with China; according to Dmitry Mosyakov, head of the South East Asia, Australia and Oceania Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, the country’s strategic importance to Beijing will help deepen those ties. East Timor lies directly opposite the Australian city of Darwin: on the one hand the port of Darwin is leased to China for 99 years, and on the other hand there is a US military base in close proximity. But if Beijing gains control of East Timor’s waters, this will provide the greatest opportunity for China’s submarine fleet.
According to the analytical comments of Chinese academics, East Timor tends to increase its cooperation with the PRC even despite threats of Western sanctions, expecting to benefit more from cooperation with the Chinese side than with the US and Australia. One successful aspect of this cooperation is the joint implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is about “the economic development of small countries for the prosperity of all mankind.” East Timor prefers to build closer relations with China because they are not based on a “Cold War mentality,” which only leads to regional unrest and global crises. The Chinese side believes that the development of normal diplomatic relations is the best option in the interests of all people on Earth, and the decision by the East Timorese president to expand bilateral contacts with China is a “wise decision.” The fact that the country opted for China shows the apparent failure of US and Australian attempts to contain China’s influence in the eastern Pacific region.
The fact that former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “missed” the signing of said security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands in April 2022 contributed to some extent to his electoral ratings decline. The incoming Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, said Australia must respond appropriately to Beijing, as no one had yet challenged its South Pacific security zone since World War II. Australia’s new Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, started with a visit to Fiji on May 26, four days before Wang Yi arrived in the country, to discuss with the Fijian government the provision of additional assistance to the South Pacific for defense, maritime security and climate change. As the Chinese foreign minister has made similar statements, Fiji, one of the key countries in Oceania, will, as per usual, get its benefits from both visitors.
Naturally, the battle between China and the West over a strategic partnership with Papua New Guinea, the largest and most important oceanic nation with a population of nearly 9 million, will be no less fierce as Wang Yi’s sensational ocean tour proceeds. The same will be true for Vanuatu, a resource-rich country 2,000 km from Australia.
The well-timed tour by the shrewd and subtle politician Wang Yi, which coincided with Australia’s post-election period, allowed him to maximize the benefits and realize most of his goals of expanding Chinese influence in Oceania.
Sofia Pale, PhD in History, Researcher at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.