How Australia can counter China’s Pacific ambitions


By Rory Medcalf

Like empires past, Xi Jinping’s China seeks three grand prizes in the Pacific: wealth, control and presence. Australia and other Pacific nations have recognised the nature and scope of this neocolonial ambition and the risk it brings; responses have veered from complacency to overreaction, fatalism to alarm.

The events of 2022 – especially the controversy over China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands – have thus been a useful wake-up call. Australian interests would be directly jeopardised if China were to establish a military base so close to our shores. But even without that scenario, the prospect of a Pacific island government turning to the guns and truncheons of a one-party nationalist megastate to suppress domestic dissent is confronting.

A long contest has begun. The aim cannot be to exclude one of the world’s greatest powers from the largest ocean. That is neither a realistic strategy nor what most of the region’s governments and peoples want. Instead, the challenge for Pacific island states and their international friends is to craft an inclusive vision for long-term development and protection of sovereignty.

The good news is that Australia is far from alone in wanting to build the resilience of the Pacific against China’s control. The Biden administration is expanding American civilian support for the region. But the United States is hardly the only other option. New Zealand, Japan, France, the EU, Britain and India all have much to offer, and others such as Canada, Germany and South Korea could play a part. Taiwan, too, remains a Pacific contributor.

China has a rightful place in the Pacific, just not the right to dominate. If many partners sustain their commitment, then all Pacific nations will benefit and strategic rivalry need not permanently shadow the future of the blue continent.

Rising seas, rising China

Any conversation on the international relations of the Pacific must be grounded in the interests, values and identity of the Pacific nations. The September 2018 Boe Declaration of the Pacific Islands Forum – the region’s main international organisation, which includes Australia among its 18 member states – provides this starting point with undeniable clarity. Here is an “expanded concept of security”, including human wellbeing, environmental protection and resilience to disasters. Health, social inclusion and prosperity are common goals. Collective stewardship of the shared “Blue Pacific” is affirmed.

So are the principles of the UN Charter: non-interference, non-coercion and a rules-based order. Climate change is emphasised as the single greatest threat: rising seas, not rising China, are front of mind.

All this builds on the October 2000 Biketawa Declaration, which also stresses good governance, democratic processes and the liberty of the individual. And it’s taken further in the forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, launched in Suva in 2022, which subsumes security in a vision of a future based on development, connectivity and a “Pacific way” of consensus.
Australia and its global partners must not only respect all these priorities, but also acknowledge that our Pacific friends have shown the path in voicing them. Yet that does not mean that the gathering storm of global geopolitics will pass these nations by.

Strategic ambition

The many nations of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia have every right to want to develop and coexist free from strategic rivalry. Still, it has found them. The Boe Declaration itself acknowledged the unavoidability of “a dynamic geopolitical environment leading to an increasingly crowded and complex region”.

Australia and the United States are sometimes accused of foisting an anti-China campaign upon small countries determined to avoid taking sides. This is false, both as narrative and chronology. The resurgence of strategic ambition in the Pacific in the 21st century was not due to some hawkish Washington plot, but was an imposition from Beijing: part of the expansion of a rising China’s interests and influence across the globe. Australia, the U.S and the rest are catching up with that new reality.

The shift did not occur overnight. A crystallising moment was Beijing’s redefinition of its 2013 One Belt, One Road geoeconomic plan (later renamed the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI).

Early maps of this signature Xi Jinping strategy were all about corridors of connectivity across Eurasia (the Belt) and the sea lanes from Shanghai to the Mediterranean (the Road). Suddenly and confusingly, in 2015 these were augmented with a branch line from South-East Asia to New Zealand, running right through the islands and waters of Melanesia. Few analysts quite grasped the meaning at the time, but it was a signal of intent.

The Maritime Silk Road is China’s version of the Indo-Pacific, and Beijing was proclaiming, without consultation, that the Pacific island countries were part of that strategic game. This came well before Australia recognised, with regret, that an Indo-Pacific rivalry had arrived. A sharper moment of truth came in 2022, with the Solomon Islands security declaration in April, followed by China’s failed attempt a month later to press an even more grandiose security and economic deal on to 10 nations.

In the past two decades, Chinese activity in the Pacific has expanded dramatically – from aid, loans and sensitive infrastructure projects, such as undersea telecommunications and data cables, to trade and investment, resource exploitation, education, propaganda, policing links, diplomatic dialogue and political pressure.

Still, it’s not a comprehensive or categorical takeover. For instance, China remains far from the largest aid donor to the region. Indeed, its rate of com- mencing new projects has declined markedly in the past few years, following a decade of acceleration.

The Lowy Institute’s indispensable Pacific Aid Map project indicates that Australia provided 29 per cent of total aid to the region in 2020, and 45 per cent between 2011 and 2016. New Zealand is in second place, and even the United States now has a slight lead over China.

Japan has long been the softly spoken achiever in Pacific assistance, steadily around the sixth-largest contributor and specialising in strengths such as stewardship of fisheries. Moreover, the Asian Development Bank – in which Japan and the United States have the largest roles – remains a vital lender for many Pacific nations.

But Beijing’s impact is not in scale alone. It converts activity into influence. Its aid projects are high profile, such as government buildings, sports stadiums, telecommunications towers, medical centres and multi-lane highways. These are typically funded by loans, which local elites see as easier to get (more red flag than red tape), even though they add to unsustainable debt.

Lowy researchers Jonathan Pryke and Alexandre Dayant suggested that China’s aid may have served its purpose as a bridgehead to get the nation’s state-owned enterprises into a dominant position in the region: even by 2017, China’s construction activities in the Pacific were about six times the scale of its foreign aid.

Meanwhile, China’s engagement with Pacific island states has grown across the board, from official delegations and dialogues, to warship visits and scholarships aplenty. And this is only what is visible. Some Chinese largesse brings blatant political dependence, such as millions of dollars’ worth of “constituency” funds for parliamentarians in Solomon Islands. And that’s not to mention outright espionage and corruption, staples of Beijing’s statecraft worldwide.

Empire and disruption

China has become busy, but that does not prove it has a grand strategy for the Pacific. Given the sheer scale of China’s capabilities, combined with its destabilising impetus as an authoritarian power impatient to impose change, other nations can’t afford to wait for a fulsome exposition of its plans before deciding how to respond.

Resilience means being prepared for multiple futures. One is that China seeks to dominate the Pacific in every sense – commanding resources, political influence and military access – as part of a strategy for region-wide hegemony and to challenge the United States globally. But another disturbing prospect is that, as with other colonial undertakings, there’s a self-perpetuating spiral of infiltration.

Either way, we now see an authoritarian giant pursuing wealth, control and presence across one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, and therein lies risk for all. China’s quest for economic benefit in the Pacific should not be considered only as short-term returns from trade or investment, but as long-term advantage in a region with concentrations of the world’s untapped raw materials – especially fish, minerals and timber.

The capacity of local governments and communities to constrain and oversee its resource exploitation is weak. Data aggregated by The Guardian suggests China receives more than half the total seafood, wood and minerals taken from the Pacific in recent years. Chinese companies are associated with illegal and unsustainable practices in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. China extracts nickel, gold and aluminium ore from mines in those countries, and in New Caledonia and Fiji. But it’s on the seabed that Beijing has the most massive ambitions, collecting offshore exploration licences across the region. The prospective prize: vast “polymetallic nodules”, including critical minerals for battery production.

Meanwhile, China has a separate reason for seeking political control and strategic presence. The Pacific has long been terrain for rivalry over diplomatic recognition between China and Taiwan, with largesse often an inducement. More generally, the support of Pacific governments has been a goal for China’s multilateral statecraft. And political influence paves the way for favourable economic and security ties.

For China, a security presence could involve police on the ground and preferential relations in training security forces, warship visits and even access for its military forces. Many observers were sceptical about such aspirations until the 2022 Solomons Islands security agreement incontrovertibly put them in print.
An armed foothold

As in South-East Asia, the Indian Ocean and Africa, China appears to want a permanent armed foothold in the Pacific.

For Australia, the effect is the same: a Chinese force in the South Pacific could isolate Australia in a future region-wide crisis or conflict, cutting access to its ally the United States – just as Japan sought to do during World War II. For the first time since then, Australia would need to consider its eastern flank a zone for hostile intelligence-gathering, harassment, deterrence and even warfare.

But even without strategic intent, China’s growing footprint in the Pacific brings danger – including for China. Disruption could come in many ways. Accusations of “debt-trap” diplomacy may have been premature, but the existing Indian Ocean case studies of Djibouti, Sri Lanka and Maldives are sobering. Here, unpayable debt to China foreshadowed variously military basing, loss of strategic assets, compromised sovereignty, political unrest and pushback.

Not for Australia alone

Preventing China from dominating the Pacific is a daunting task and hardly for Australia to pursue alone. An overbearing Australian approach won’t work: it would reinforce Beijing’s disinformation– and understandable local concerns – about an Anglosphere country reviving old colonial ploys of treating the Pacific as its sphere of influence. And there’s the question of means.

For Canberra to throw nearly all its finite external policy arsenal – aid, diplomacy, security, intelligence and more – at a contested Pacific would also mean abandoning the aspiration of helping to shape our rounder region. The Indo-Pacific is centred on maritime South-East Asia, but also includes the Indian Ocean, where China’s larger ambitions (including dominance of sea lanes and access to Africa) proceed apace. Expectations will also grow for Australia to strengthen its role as a protector of the global commons in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, where we have the largest territorial claim.

When Tonga’s infrastructure was badly damaged by a tsunami after a volcanic eruption in January 2022, aircraft and ships converged with food, water, medicine and shelter from various corners, notably Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, France, the United States and, yes, China.

Many stakeholders have enough shared principles, something to offer, and increasingly a willingness to contribute. Some also have historical baggage. But they have every chance to prove that their renewed involvement is about putting local needs first – the antithesis of colonialism.

When Tonga was hit by a tsunami after a volcanic eruption in January 2022, aid quickly arrived from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, France, the US and, yes, China. ABC News

The Indo-Pacific is a work in progress, and Pacific governments have scope to shape it to suit their interests. By bringing together the island states of the Pacific and the Indian oceans in one mental map, the Indo-Pacific could enable them to coordinate on their concerns.

Indeed, one intriguing idea could be an “oceans forum” where nations such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu could share notes with, say, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka on parallel challenges. This could range across issues such as fisheries management, health security, infrastructure, climate change and the common problem of how to manage pressures from great powers.

A Pacific kind of leadership

In all this, Australia could be a guide and an informal co-ordinator for other international contributors, encouraging them to invest efficiently, for the long haul and in line with what Pacific communities want. This is leadership, but of a quiet kind, with a premium on self-awareness, inclusion and genuine diplomacy.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy have set the tone with patient rounds of travel, consultation and communication. As the only nation with a diplomatic presence in every Pacific Islands Forum member country or territory, Australia is uniquely suited for this vital connecting role.

Our operating picture of the region is unparalleled: from the maritime domain awareness of our navy, air force, Border Force and other intelligence assets, to the vital climate data of the Bureau of Meteorology. This can augment a political and cultural understanding of the region – often situated outside government – which is being renewed after long neglect.

The role of Australia as co-ordinator would not be about power or entitlement, but a function of how much others trust our expertise, experience and networks. Any advice we give to external contributors should be based on clear signals from local communities.

We should accept that sometimes others may have capabilities and ideas more suited for Pacific needs than our own – perhaps Japanese technical expertise, French marine research, German democratic transparency, Indian health care or British climate finance.

Outcomes and credit will not and should not always go our way. Even in security, we will want to be forewarned of what others are doing and deconflict wherever we can, but we should not always insist on being the mediator or leader of our friends’ contributions.
Pacific institutions and communities have modest bandwidth to absorb the new-found torrent of global interest, and Canberra should be wary of flooding the zone. Labor foreign policy lore recounts Australia’s key role in enlightened collective achievements of more than a generation ago, like the Cambodia Peace Process, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and global arms control and disarmament agreements.

Now Australia needs to rediscover that muscle memory for multilateral convening and co-ordination and apply it close to home, submerging hard national interest in a sense of regional or global citizenship where true partners hold each other to account. This is not about backing down on security, but rather providing it in the broadest sense. The test ahead is to prove we are up to this authentically Pacific kind of leadership.