Against the backdrop of a resurgence in great power politics, the United States and its regional allies have struggled to retain influence in the South-West Pacific, as discussed in a previous paper. For Beijing, however, the South-West Pacific countries and territories of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru and Kiribati offer new opportunities for China to enhance its international standing. Indeed, despite being a relative newcomer to the Pacific, China has quickly become the region’s fourth-largest aid donor, providing just over $171 million worth of aid to the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) in 2017. While still far behind the $855 million given by Australia, it could be argued that Beijing’s aid programme is just as, if not more, effective, given China’s rapidly-growing clout in the region.

China has a key and, in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), legitimate reason to focus its efforts in the South-West Pacific: to break out from Washington’s efforts to contain China’s influence and displace the United States as the dominant Pacific power.

Key points:

  • China’s involvement in the South-West Pacific revolves around the three main objectives of securing its influence, increasing its access to resources and reducing the ability of the United States to constrain it geographically.
  • The achievement of those objectives has been aided by the benign neglect of the region by Washington, the traditional dominant power.
  • China is unlikely to conclude any formal alliance network with the Pacific Island countries due to the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding aversion to alliances and preference for bilateral arrangements.
  • Australia and New Zealand will have to deal with increasing Chinese influence in their “backyards” in the foreseeable future.
  • Even if China does not establish a physical military presence in the South-West Pacific, its growing economic and diplomatic influence will serve to undercut US influence in the region.
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