By Taylor Tutawa-Mclaren
In the past several months, China’s increasingly active influence in the Pacific has been the source of fresh tension.
Australia, New Zealand, the United States and several Pacific Island nations have publicly expressed concern, particularly over the security agreement recently signed between the Solomon Islands and China.
But is China truly a threat to peace and stability in the region? Or are Western countries trying to keep a stranglehold on the Pacific?
To understand why China’s rising influence in the Pacific is unsettling many commentators, we first need to understand the region’s ‘status quo.’
The decades-old power structure that currently exists in the Pacific was created by the European empires of old (primarily Britain, France, Dutch and Spain) who colonised many of the Pacific Islands, as well as Australia and New Zealand, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Things began to change following the end of the First World War however. With the devastation left in Europe in the war’s aftermath, nations like Britain and France struggled to keep control of their foreign territories.
This gap allowed two new emerging world powers to expand into the Pacific: the United States and Japan.
Japan made its play for dominance by attacking Pearl Harbour, the US’s Hawaiian Naval Base, in 1941. The US responded by immediately declaring war on Japan, thus beginning the largest and bloodiest war the Pacific region has ever seen.
Over the next four years of fighting, Pacific Island territories like Guam and Papua New Guinea played host for Japan and the US to fight small-scale skirmishes to capture territories across the region.
After much loss and widespread devastation, the US ended the war in the Pacific theatre by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese soil in 1945, defeating the imperialist nation and removing them from the Pacific by seizing its territories and placing a permanent American military presence in Japan.
In the postwar decades, many of the former colonies in the Pacific achieved independence and established diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand.
Financial aid, military assistance and trade agreements between Australia, NZ and the Pacific Islands have helped to create regional prosperity.
The establishment of the Pacific Island Forum in 1971 created a platform for concerns in the region to be discussed between heads of state.
But the lingering effects of colonisation are still being felt today.
Many Pacific Island territories are still under the jurisdiction of other Western countries, with notable examples of post-colonial states being Hawaii, American Samoa, Tahiti and New Caledonia.
So, when the Solomon Islands, an independent state, chooses of its free will to sign a security agreement with China, why has the reaction been so negative?
The security agreement guarantees a minimum five-year period in which China will be able to send military and naval forces to the Solomon Islands if requested by the SI Government.
The agreement was accelerated by the Honiara Riots in 2021, which saw civil unrest and rampant rioting over five days.
Protestors disagreed with Prime Minister Sogavareh’s decision to recognise Taiwan as a territory of China, and what began as a peaceful protest turned violent. Protestors attempted to storm Parliament, demanding that Sogavareh be removed from his position immediately.
His refusal to meet the demands saw anarchy spread as rioters destroyed the Chinatown district of Honiara and a plea was made to Solomon Islands’ allies to send peace-keeping forces to quell the protest.
Australia, New Zealand, PNG and China all sent security forces (of varying numbers) to quell the riots and keep the peace.
However, the sacking of Chinatown, the continued vote of confidence in Sogavareh and the reliance on Chinese forces and supplies to establish order have opened up more opportunities for China to develop its presence within the Pacific.
While the China-Solomon Islands agreement is the most notable example of Chinese influence in the Pacific recently, China has been strategically growing its influence across the region for years.
Infrastructure investments, resource deliveries and humanitarian aid provided by China has encouraged a dependency on Chinese resources and aid, particularly as US engagement lags distance behind.
With China having been solely focused on domestic issues for decades, the recent expansion of its influence in the Pacific has taken many by surprise.
The United States has made it a priority to re-establish a foothold in the Pacific following the signing of the Solomon Islands–China agreement.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been critical of the Solomon Islands’ alignment with China, and has reaffirmed his alignment with the US’s policy of containing China in The Pacific.
In response, Prime Minister Sogavareh has criticised what he terms ‘threats of invasion’ from Australia after its continued dismissal of the agreement.
But with tensions in the Pacific reaching an all-new high, what comes next?
Regardless of what the Western powers may desire, continued Chinese influence in the region is almost guaranteed in the short term.
Despite a recent dip in the Chinese economy and the after-effects of COVID still persisting in mainland China, the country is continuing to push its foreign policy agendas and the Pacific seems to be a priority at the moment.
The Solomon Islands is only one of several notable examples of what China can – and has – achieved through strategic and well-funded plays for influence to date. Experts tracking China’s increasing activity in the Pacific region over the last few years struggle to quantify any conclusive results aside from a more notable military presence in the region. However, influence is not something that can easily be measured – and is easy to underestimate.
So then, the question bears repeating:
Is China a genuine threat to peace and stability in the region – or is the West reluctant to let go of its old colonial possessions?