The last year has seen a change. China has consistently become a more globally-oriented military power. In May of this year, the Guardian reported that Washington “expects China to add military bases around the world to protect its investments in its ambitious One Belt One Road global infrastructure program.” At the time, the article mentioned that only one military base existed in Djibouti, but that the possibility of expansion was being explored and should be expected. The Pentagon issued a report on Chinese military and security developments, saying, “China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests.” At the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping called for transforming “the people’s armed forces into a world-class military by the mid-21st century.”
Fast forward to current day conversations being held regarding the deal to lease the South Pacific island of Tulagi, a prominent meeting-point for world powers during the 20th century, and we can see that concerns regarding China’s growing military focus have not gone away, and might not be completely unwarranted.
On September 22nd, a 75-year lease agreement giving a state-owned Chinese company, the China Sam Enterprise Group, exclusive development rights over Tulagi, a “military gem” which, in 1942, the New York Times described as “a deep, hurricane-free anchorage almost vital in General Douglas MacArthur’s scheme to reconquer the Southwest Pacific.” The US and Australia have continually expressed concern that Chinese infrastructure projects around the world are allowing Beijing to establish a widespread military foothold. This is only substantiated by the fact that President Trump’s America First Policy is creating power gaps where the US pulls back across the world.
On October 25th, Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Damukana Sogavare, announced that the deal will not be allowed to go through, as it had been signed by the Central Province, which does not have the required authority to negotiate for the island, and because China Sam Enterprises was not registered as a foreign investor in the country. According to The Guardian, Mark Esper, US Secretary of Defense, praised the Island’s decision to veto the deal, warning that “Many nations in the Pacific have discovered far too late that Chinese use of economic and military levers to expand their influence often is detrimental to them and their people.”
He may have been referring to the fact that, just days before the Tulagi agreement was signed by the provincial government, the Solomon Islands, previously called “Taiwan’s largest ally in the Pacific region”, also cut ties with Taiwan, furthering Beijing’s goal to end “the region’s status as a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan.” Shortly thereafter, Kiribati, a Micronesian nation in the Pacific, and Taiwan mutually severed ties. Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute, notes that Taiwan has lost seven allies in the last few years, saying “It’s certainly not a good week for Taiwan, losing two of your remaining 17 diplomatic allies in one week, and two with the largest populations in the Pacific.”
In May 2018, 9News reported Australian Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, as saying that China’s influence in Vanuatu, another Pacific island nation, could “lead to a direct military threat to Australia” if China was allowed to “build a military base on its shores”. Vanuatu also saw a large influx on Chinese-funded infrastructure projects – a “construction spree… government buildings, stadiums, convention centers, roads and extensions to Port Vila’s runway to allow for larger planes.”
Combine this with the concerns expressed in the 2018 US National Defense Strategy, which states that China’s push for “economic and military ascendance” are grounded in a “military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future”, and it’s easy to understand how recent moves in Tulagi and Kiribati are raising alarm. According to The Wilson Center, Taiwan and Japan both see China’s rapid military modernization as asking for a fight by unilaterally escalating tensions. More recently, the Philippines, traditionally a US ally, has “leaned closer to China” and government officials have called for a review of their Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, afraid that it might put them on China’s bad side. India, interested in protecting its disputed northern border from Chinese influence, is watching China’s expansionist activities with a hawk’s eye, and Seoul, while primarily focused on the threat from North Korea, has expressed “deepening concerns about the role China may play in contingencies on the Korean Peninsula”.
It’s safe to say that the global stage is set, with all significant actors watching to see what China does next, and each ready with their contingency plans. It is in everyone’s best interest to resist their urge to move decisively towards a military blowout or aggressive economic sanctioning, but as tensions build, this may prove difficult.