By Zhao Minghao Source: Global Times Published: 2018-7-30
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during the 2018 Australia-United States Ministerial Consultation meetings that he was confident South Pacific countries would choose the US over China, despite the Asian power's move to make economic and strategic advances at small island nations. The remarks have caused concern that the South Pacific region is becoming the stage for new cold-war strategic competition between China and the US.
The US and its allies are viewing its interaction with China on the global stage from the "cold war" framework. US military leaders, in particular, have made frequent public remarks accusing China of impairing US security interests and strategic standing in certain regions through the implementation of its Belt and Road initiative.
The Americans worry that China is seeking to expand its military influence in the South Pacific. Robert B. Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, said in June that China, like playing the Chinese game of Go, is "putting marbles down" in the South Pacific region to gain geographical advantage there.
Obviously, the US and Australia regard the South Pacific region as their backyard and believe China has intruded into their sphere of influence. But the fact is that South Pacific countries are keen on diversified diplomacy and are unwilling to be controlled by Australia and the US any more.
According to a report by the New York Times, "some Pacific islands have become more vocal about Australia's 'paternalistic aid'" and often complain that "the Australian and American governments do more dictating than developing."
The South Pacific nations are very concerned about the threat to their survival due to climate change. Australia is one of the world's leading exporters of coal, which exacerbates climate change, while the administration of Donald Trump is indifferent to the challenges posed by the phenomenon.
China has set up a special fund to help South Pacific nations cope with climate change. The South Pacific countries have every reason to "look north" to strengthen ties with Beijing.
However, the past few months have witnessed flagrant Australian interference in the cooperation between these countries and China. Earlier this year, Canberra accused Vanuatu of allowing China to build a military base around the Luganville Wharf. Less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia, the wharf is regarded as a strategic outpost of Australia. The Vanuatu's government sharing a copy of the contract signed with China in 2014 finally confirmed the construction of the wharf is meant for cruise ships and international trade.
Vanuatu was the second-largest American military base in the Pacific after Hawaii during World War II. But the country with a string of about 80 islands and a population of 270,000 has been part of the Non-Aligned Movement for years.
In addition to Vanuatu, Australia has also taken on China in the Solomon Islands. With the aim to limit Chinese company Huawei's business in the region, the Turnbull government stepped in as the majority funder of a 4,000-kilometer undersea data cable to the Solomon Islands. This is an indication of Australia's deepening suspicion of China and frosty bilateral relations.
With China-US competition intensifying, hyping up Beijing's influence in the South Pacific region will help strengthen the legitimacy of US-Australian military cooperation. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April called for US nuclear armed submarines and warships to be stationed in Perth. As a member of the Commonwealth, Australia is also trying to persuade India to play a bigger role in the South Pacific region.
At this year's Pacific Islands Forum to be held in September, Australia is set to sign a wide-ranging new security pact with a number of island countries, which will allow the US to participate in a flexible way.
The South Pacific has obviously become an important part of the Indo-Pacific strategy promoted by the US and Australia. If Washington and Canberra ignite a new cold war in the region, the island nations will become the biggest victims.
A zero-sum approach is definitely unwarranted. In 2012, China, New Zealand and Cook Island agreed to cooperate on a NZ$60 million project to upgrade the water supply network in Rarotonga, Cook Islands' main island. More similar projects can be carried out, but only if some countries stop viewing China's global influence from a cold war perspective.
The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.