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Defence & Security

China in the Pacific and the unfolding geostrategic competition in the region

20 Jul 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

When news of the China-Solomon Islands Pact broke last year, it awoke many Australians to the issues happening in our region and gave renewed focus to the Indo-Pacific, in both domestic and US security discussions.

Over recent decades, China has been deepening its relations across the Pacific – an effort that was formerly viewed as an attempt to woo states and alter their perceptions of Taiwan as a sovereign nation. More recently, awareness of the geo-strategic importance the Pacific region holds in China’s competition with the US has grown.

Dr Anna Hayes, Senior Lecturer of Politics and International Relations at James Cook University, says this rise in the region’s significance – and the growing power competition between China and the US– give merit to assertions that these efforts represent the New Cold War.

Why is the Pacific so significant?

“We need to consider both Island Chain strategy and what Beijing calls the ‘southern extension’ of its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. These hold great significance in geostrategic considerations of the region,” Dr Hayes said ahead of the ADM Townsville Defence Forum.

The Island Chain Strategy emerged in US foreign policy circles in 1951, proposing that the US establish multiple bases across the West Pacific to contain Soviet and Chinese ambitions in the Pacific Ocean region.

It remains a focal point within American and Chinese geo-political strategies because it is ultimately about power over the Pacific Ocean and its important sea lines of communication, Dr Hayes said.

“China is currently constrained within the first Island Chain, and it seeks to break free from that constraint. The Pacific Islands give it a foothold in the second and third island chains.

“Therefore, the Pacific Island Countries play a critical role in unlocking Oceania, and some Chinese scholars have identified the potential for ‘strategic pivot ports’ across the region, which means commercial ports that can double as military ports if needed.”

Belt and Road Initiative

Dr Hayes says this is linked in to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative which, on one level, is a trade and commercial relationship between China and other states. However, given the potential for ‘land for debt’ swaps – where ports and other developments may be taken on 99 year leaseholds by Beijing if states cannot make repayments – the potential of these “strategic pivot ports” becomes more worrisome.

“Many states in the Pacific are likely to need debt-relief, which is why Brahma Chellaney has labelled this the ‘debt trap strategy’. If more ports and other strategic assets in debtor countries are taken in equity for debt swaps, particularly ports, this breaths life to the ‘string of pearls’ theory.”

The String of Pearls theory, first articulated in 2003, claims that China has been focused on securing ports across the region so it can have greater control over trade and sea lines. Should these ports become Chinese military bases, as already seen in Djibouti, then, over time, a pearl-like string of Chinese bases will materialize on the map.

In support of this theory, China pledged more than US$6 billion in loans to Pacific Island Countries between 2011 and 2018, roughly 21 percent of the regional GDP. Of that total, US$4.46 billion was pledged to Papua New Guinea – a strategic linchpin between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the second and third island chains.

“This is why we have seen the recent flurry of activity from both the United States and Australia towards Papua New Guinea,” Dr Hayes said.

A global response

To combat this threat, the Biden administration hosted a delegation of leaders from Pacific Island Countries in Washington in the first US-Pacific Summit in September 2022. This built on the US’s 2019 partnership with PNG under its Global Fragility Act.

Australia and Papua New Guinea have also signed a Bilateral Security Treaty and in May 2023, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited PNG instead of Biden (who had to return to the US for debt ceiling negotiations). During his visit, a defence and maritime surveillance agreement between the US and PNG was signed.

Blinken’s visit coincided with a planned visit by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was meeting with several leaders from Pacific Island Countries in PNG, demonstrating the growing work on the Quad within the region (Japan, India, Australia and the United States).

Dr Hayes says this engagement is encouraging and will gain more strength if President Biden joins Pacific leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2023, as is currently anticipated.

“The Australia-PNG Bilateral Security Treaty is significant and the draft principles of the treaty highlight important areas of cooperation that will benefit both PNG and Australia in areas of both traditional and non-traditional security realms. It is not only a defence pact but it enables more support in the form of humanitarian relief in times of natural disasters and the range of human security challenges across the region.

“For Australia and the US the focus may be on the geostrategic rivalry that is unfolding, but across the Pacific the challenges remain in the human condition and the threats posed by climate change, local unrest, economic insecurity and issues of law and order.”

Implications for Townsville

The Townsville base is already a critical base within the region and has been used as a staging post for interventions in conflicts in the region and in times of disaster relief. Greater defence diplomacy and cooperation between Australia and the Pacific Islands Countries, particularly PNG, is set to grow alongside this expansion.

This provides many opportunities for Townsville as well as the Pacific expatriates who live in both Cairns and Townsville in particular.

“These two cities are already well connected into the Pacific,” Dr Hayes said.

Discussing these opportunities further, Dr Hayes will join a stellar line up of speakers at the upcoming ADM Townsville Defence Forum.

This year’s event will be held 23 August at the Ville Resort-Casino Queensland.

Learn more and register here.

About Anna Hayes

Dr Anna Hayes Senior Research Fellow at the East Asia Security Centre and Senior Lecturer Politics and International Relations Discipline Coordinator: Politics and International Relations at James Cook University.

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