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Zhao Minghao: Pacific island countries caught in America's China policy


By Zhao Minghao    Source: CGTN    Published: 2019-9-23

Two island countries in the Pacific-the Solomon Islands and Kiribati- recently severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Such moves have been opposed by the U.S. and it even sent a navy ship to sail through the Taiwan Strait to advocate for "free navigation". But Washington's interference on the sovereign states' decisions makes no sense.

Manasseh Sogavare, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, said that the U.S. threatened to cut aid if the Solomon Islands decided to cut ties with Taiwan. In his statement to the Solomon Times, the prime minister underlined that the "Solomon Islands is not a political football," and the country will "determine the most appropriate way forward for the good of our country and people." The "one-China Principle" is getting recognition from even more countries. This is an unstoppable trend and a reality that the U.S. should clearly understand.

Just as Sogavare pointed out, except for 15 nations, the "one-China Principle" is formally endorsed by all members of the United Nations under the UN Resolution 2758. Establishing diplomatic ties with China is a consensus among all MPs in the ruling coalition of Solomon Islands, thus representing the will of the people. In 2018, China became the Islands' biggest trade partner and the country is looking forward to benefiting more from the Belt & Road Initiative.

However, it should be noted that Washington's intervention is no longer a mere show of support to Taiwan. The Trump administration is thinking of making the Pacific island countries a new frontier in the Sino-American strategic competition.

Though in the past decades, attention from the U.S. to the Pacific island countries has decreased, ever since the "Pivot to Asia" strategy was adopted by the Obama administration, America resumed its policy attention and input in the area, largely seen as a counterbalance against China. This strategy continued under the Trump Administration.

At the moment, the Pacific island countries are believed to be the focal point of Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy, to which strengthening America's security influence is the cornerstone. The island countries in the Pacific are believed by strategy specialists in the U.S. to be the next leverage of China's neighborhood diplomacy and a key to its Belt & Road Initiative.

Therefore, they assume China will seek to contain U.S. military presence in the West Pacific by enhancing its influence, thus America must escalate its wrestle with China in the region.

The U.S. is also leveling up its diplomatic contacts with the Pacific island countries. Just a case in point: in 2018, Ryan Zinke, a then cabinet-level official who was serving as Secretary of the Interior, was sent to the Pacific Islands Forum by President Trump.

In addition, a director position in charge of Pacific island countries affairs was created within the White House National Security Council to facilitate cross-departmental coordination among the Department of State, Department of Defense, and others. The goal is to make "whole-of-government" efforts to counterbalance China's influence in the region.

Other security policy measures were also taken simultaneously. The U.S. Department of State channeled seven million U.S. dollars in security aid to Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga (the only three that have their own military forces among Pacific island countries) via the "Foreign Military Financing" project.

The U.S. also dispatched a military adviser to Fiji to work together with the Ministry of Defense of Fiji on maritime security cooperation. Defense attachés were also assigned to U.S. embassies in countries such as Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia, all possible sites for more intense strategic competitions between China and the U.S. in the future.

Undoubtedly, Washington is taking on a strategic and security prism when looking at China's interactions with the Pacific island countries. Moreover, as part of its efforts to contain Beijing, the U.S. and its allies are also playing the economic card. Due to their pressuring, a couple of economic cooperation projects were held back, for example, the Solomon Islands would have invited Huawei to help build undersea cables, if the U.S. and Australia had not intervened.

It is already clear that the U.S. is waving both sticks and carrots to the Pacific island countries due to its concerns in an intensified strategic competition with China. In his August visit to Micronesia, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo claimed China wanted to "redraw" the lines in the Pacific Ocean.

Such statement not only shows that Washington is obsessed with discussions on outdated notions like the spheres of influence, but also its attempt to use the Pacific island countries as a card to counterbalance China. Those countries, adding to their life-or-death threats brought by climate change, are put under new pressure stemming from Washington's China policy.

The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Key Words: Pacific island   Sino-US Relations   RDCY   Zhao Minghao  

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