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Foreign Policy

Looming Tensions Call for Sensible Power-Sharing in South Pacific

Sep 11 , 2012

Unlike other parts of the Asia Pacific, the South Pacific never really attracted much attention because its small island states were regarded as quiet, sleepy backwaters, sparkling like pearls cast over the waters. Now, however, the situation is quite different. China seems to have been inching its way into the region for a decade or more, Japan followed and finally the US emerges. It seems the region has now become a new frontier full of the competing voices of the big powers from outside.

A recent visit to the Cook Islands by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by American naval vessels and a large support team, attracted global interest. It was the first visit by a secretary from the US State Department, however most commentary pointed out that America’s renewed engagement is another geo-strategic interaction being played out between China and the US. Clinton rejected the idea that the US wanted to hedge China, stressing the region is large enough for big powers to stay and cooperate. The remarks should be welcomed, but questions need to be answered. Such as what are China’s strategic interests and South Pacific foreign policies, and will superpowers like the US and China deal with each other through confrontation or competitive cooperation?

With China’s rapid growth, its interests in the remote South Pacific can be assessed as follows.

China’s overseas interests cannot exclude those in South Pacific. Jiang Zemin’s observation that economic globalization cannot be avoided by any country has important implications for China’s overseas interests. President Hu Jintao stated in a speech delivered to Chinese diplomats in August 2004 about the role of diplomatic work overseas being “to maintain and expand our country’s national interests”. With China’s rapidly growing economy, its far seas interests are rapidly expanding and fall into three categories: political, economic, and the security of its citizens abroad. These interests should not be excluded from the South Pacific.

Also, China needs to maintain diplomatic relations with these small island countries. Although a diplomatic truce has been affected between the Mainland and Taiwan since Ma Ying-Jeou was elected in 2008, the potential for diplomatic competition with Taiwan still exists if a candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan wins a future election. China cannot tolerate any independent-oriented party developing or expanding Taiwan’s diplomatic relations in the South Pacific.

Furthermore, China is ambitious in its economic development and is anxious to seek raw resources and oceanic metals, oil and fish. The South Pacific seems to be an almost untapped region and should have resources ripe for exploration in the foreseeable future. China has already invested US$200 million in construction of the Ramu nickel mine project in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and also has a joint development gas project in PNG. The far seas fishery industry is emerging and the South Pacific should be an ideal place for cooperation between China and relevant countries.

Also, maintaining freedom of navigation in the South Pacific is of vital interest not only for the US and its allies like Australia, but also for China whose foreign trade has increased rapidly. Commercial exchange with Oceanic countries and Latin America has also been enhanced. China also has long used maritime channels for tracking ships and any incident on the route would have unimaginable and disastrous consequences.


China’s South Pacific Foreign Policy

Most island countries in the South Pacific are small and have been overlooked by the big powers for a long time. China, however, remembers them and has made efforts to establish friendly relations as a foundation for its diplomatic strategy of maintaining ‘integrity of territory’ national interests. Therefore, despite having no diplomatic ties in the first 25 years of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, China understood these small countries’ position in the regional and global political order and sought to accept them as soon as conditions became appropriate. Under the five principles of peaceful co-existence and the One-China policy, China now has official relations with eight countries in the South Pacific.

China-South Pacific relations have deepened as a result, and China’s foreign policy toward the region can be concluded as follows.

 1. China regards the small island countries as equal and respected, and although it has national interests there, it is only interested in common development, not hegemony, to seek influence.

 2. China persists with the One-China policy to develop its relations with any country in the region. If any country wishes, however, to resume relations with Taiwan, China will firmly sever official ties.

 3. China continues to support a nuclear-free zone policy in the South Pacific and rejects nuclear weapons ships navigating in the region. It will not use nuclear weapons to menace those countries.

 4. China wants to supply as much assistance as possible to South Pacific countries and to sustain mutually beneficial relations. As Cui Tiankai said not long ago, China's assistance to developing Pacific countries was not aimed primarily at furthering China's own interests but always considered their demands and needs.


Competitive Cooperation between US and China

Both China and the US believe the Pacific is big enough for both of them, as declared by Secretary of State Clinton. They would like to live peacefully and work together in the South Pacific. As a rising power, China should recognize American interests in the Asia Pacific and find a way to accommodate all powers operating in the South Pacific. At this moment the best method is competitive cooperation.

We need to seek a cooperative posture across the Pacific for a community that is inclusive and open, not a community for unilateral goals and interests. We have to understand that the cooperation involves competition, which should be undertaken in a climate of mutual respect and fairness. If all participants abide by international law and relevant regulations a win-win situation will be the result. Specifically, to deal with the US in the South Pacific, China needs to adjust its policies to a new level as follows.

The first is that it should be aware of the long period of American military and political influence in the region. It must be cautious not to challenge America’s military presence but it can seek low-level military cooperation with the US and then gradually build up to a next stage. In the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese Navy has undertaken joint operations with the US Navy in combating piracy and China can consider other kinds of cooperation in the South Pacific.

The second is that politically, China can try to use the remote region as a testing ground to set up a new style of big power relationship with the US. Both should collaborate to design a possible mechanism to deal with regional affairs such as the environment, fishery industry development, gender equality, etc.

The third is that China can pursue a new kind of cooperation linked to the climate and environment. The South Pacific is reported to be a final virgin ocean, green and tranquil. China’s climate change project can involve Americans to identify a specific area or islet in the region as an observation station. Global climate change affects oceanic conditions and, for instance, a special change can impact on some organisms more than others. Scientists from both countries can work together in the ocean to examine water temperature and ecological changes. 

The fourth is to establish a fund for local economic assistance. China now ranks third in supporting the island countries with Australia the first. China and the US can work together with Australia, and even Japan and the ROK, to set up a fund or an economic assistance foundation to support regional economic development. China’s contribution would need an adjustment to the balance of its aid to island countries. Its soft loan to Tonga is one-third of the country’s GDP. While China should be applauded for its generosity, it is necessary to avoid recipients being over-dependent. Australia is another country that could adjust its aid. The establishment of a joint foundation could denote a cooperative spirit in which the big powers practice a new approach to the region leading to goodwill being abundant.


Cai Penghong is a Senior Fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

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