US strategic objectives in the South Pacific challenged by Sino-American competition

Relations with China Diplomacy International relations United States of America China Pacific Area

China’s rise as a peer competitor to the United States has set off alarm bells in Washington. While US policymakers are focussed on the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia and Africa, Washington is currently neglecting a key strategic area that should certainly be in its core interests: the South-West Pacific. China’s diplomatic and economic expansion into the island states of the South-West Pacific has put Australia and New Zealand on alert, but Washington’s response, however, has been lacklustre, consisting of only warnings to the Pacific Island Countries (PIC) about the dangers of China’s “debt trap diplomacy”. As such, the current US strategic objective for the South-West Pacific is the diplomatic and economic re-engagement with a region that, in many ways, has largely been ignored by Washington since 1945. The end goal for the US is to secure its influence in the region by constraining, if not crowding out, the growing economic and political influence enjoyed by China among many of the PICs. If those efforts are to be completely successful, Washington will need to overcome the perception, largely caused by decades of benign neglect, that the US is aloof and distant in its relationships with the states and territories of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru and Kiribati.

Key points:

  • China’s growing influence in the South Pacific has spurred the United States and its regional allies Australia, New Zealand and Japan, to develop closer relations with the Pacific Islands.
  • The tactics pursued by Washington have been a combination of close co-operation with its regional allies and the vilification of China’s influence.
  • Perceptions of benign neglect have made Washington look out of touch in the Pacific community.
  • Washington fears that the implications of the increasing influence of the Chinese Government would include the build-up of Chinese naval capabilities in the South Pacific.
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