Written by Denghua Zhang.
China’s diplomacy has become increasingly proactive under the Xi Jinping administration. The Belt and Road Initiative is in full swing. The China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was established in 2015.
Beijing has also flexed its muscles on territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. President Xi coined the concept of ‘building a community of common destiny’ in international relations. He instructed Chinese diplomats to pursue a distinctive diplomacy with ‘Chinese features’, ‘Chinese style’ and ‘Chinese confidence’, which will befit China’s role as a major global power. China has also substantially increased its diplomatic and economic investment abroad. Chinese aid projects have mushroomed in the developing countries.
Since the pro-independence Progressive Democratic Party in Taiwan took power from the Nationalist Party in January 2016, the informal diplomatic truce between Mainland China and Taiwan has ceased and diplomatic wrestling has restarted.
Against this backdrop, three questions are worth asking: does China have big ambitions in the Pacific region? How might that fit with China’s broader global ambitions? And what are China’s main interests in the region? Given that most of the existing literature has focused on China’s presence in regions, especially Africa and Asia, probing into these questions will fill the research gap and enrich the debates on China’s diplomacy.
Chinese diplomats have vaguely positioned different regions in China’s diplomatic landscape as follows: big powers are the key (daguo shi guanjian大国是关键); peripheral countries are the priority (zhoubian shi shouyao周边是首要); developing countries are the foundation (fazhanzhong guojia shi jichu发展中国家是基础); multilateral platforms are the important stage (duobian shi zhongyao wutai多变是重要舞台). The Pacific region is regarded as a ‘great periphery’ or an extension of China’s neighbourhood diplomacy.
Beijing has boosted its relations with the Pacific island countries through three major events in the past decade. In April 2006, Wen Jiabao became the first Chinese Premier in history to visit the Pacific region. He inaugurated the China-Pacific Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in Nadi, Fiji and pledged US$463.1 million (RMB3 billion) in concessional loans to the region. At the second Forum meeting hosted in Guangzhou in November 2013, China endorsed US$ 1 billion in concessional loans and US$1 billion in commercial loans to the Pacific region. In November 2014, Xi Jinping paid his first state visit to Fiji and held a group discussion with leaders of eight Pacific island countries. To showcase China’s emphasis on the region, Xi announced that China would establish strategic partnerships with the Pacific countries and, among other aid measures, provide 2,000 tertiary degree scholarships and 5,000 short-term training slots for these countries.
Compared with the other regions of developing countries, however, Pacific island countries are not a priority in China’s diplomacy. In terms of organisational structure, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has separate departments specialising in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, which dwarf the half dozen officials working on Pacific affairs within the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs. China has released its policy papers on regions such as Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, but not yet on the Pacific region.
Equally important, most of the Pacific island countries, except Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Fiji, are small in population and land size. Among the 14 sovereign Pacific states, nine have a land size smaller than 1,000 square km, and ten have a population under 200,000. If PNG is excluded, most of the Pacific countries have limited natural resources except fishery. Their roles in international affairs are also modest. All these factors have set limits on the potential of cooperation between China and Pacific island countries. China’s growing input in the Pacific region is just part of its expanded engagement with the developing countries at large, and the China-Pacific relationship is part of China’s broader outreach to the whole developing world.
Close examination of China’s activities in the Pacific reveals their main interests in the region. Politically, China needs support from Pacific island countries that have an equal vote at international and regional organisations. This is particularly meaningful to the People’s Republic of China (or Mainland China) and the Republic of China (or Taiwan) who have been involved in fierce diplomatic battles revolving the ‘One China’ policy. Among the 20 countries that recognise Taiwan diplomatically, six are small Pacific countries: Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
The other eight Pacific countries recognise Beijing. Since the pro-independence Progressive Democratic Party in Taiwan took power from the Nationalist Party in January 2016, the informal diplomatic truce between Mainland China and Taiwan has ceased and diplomatic wrestling has restarted. For example, Fiji closed its trade office in Taipei on May 10th, 2017, a few days before Prime Minister Bainimarama attended the inaugural Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing. In addition to the Taiwan issue, China looks to Pacific island countries for support on global issues such as reform of the UN Security Council and domestic issues such as the chasing of corrupt Chinese officials hiding in the Pacific.
Economically, China’s fishing fleet has expanded its operation in the Pacific Ocean. China’s state-owned enterprises have increased their presence in PNG, which is endowed with mineral and energy resources. China Metallurgical Group invested US$1.4 billion in the Ramu Nickel mine in Madang Province, which is China’s largest single investment project in the Pacific. In December 2009, China Sinopec signed the agreement to purchase two million tons of liquefied natural gas from PNG per annum for 30 years. The China-aided international convention centre in Port Moresby, which will be used as the main venue by the PNG government to host the upcoming APEC summit in November 2018, is China’s largest grant aid project in the region.
The Pacific region is also a place for China to exercise its red-carpet diplomacy. A growing number of government leaders and senior ministers from the Pacific, whether big countries such as PNG and Fiji, or small countries such as Cook Islands and Niue, have been invited to visit China in the past decade and received high-standard treatments. China’s red-carpet diplomacy and its policy of non-interference in Pacific countries’ internal affairs have increased China’s appeals to the Pacific island leaders.
It is expected that China will expand its presence in the Pacific in the foreseeable future, which will enhance its regional influence. However, the Pacific island countries will unlikely be near the top of the agenda for the Chinese government who will continue to be preoccupied with China’s relations with major global powers, Africa and Asia.
Denghua Zhang is a research fellow at the Australian National University where he completed his PhD research on Chinese foreign policy and aid in 2017. He has a decade-long work experience as a former diplomat. His research focuses on international relations, development studies, Chinese foreign policy, foreign aid, trilateral aid cooperation and Pacific studies. He has published more than twenty academic papers including recently with The Pacific Review, Third World Quarterly, The Round Table, Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies and Security Challenges. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.