〜The Strategic Importance of the South Pacific Region for China〜
China’s expansion under its Belt and Road initiative has recently become pronounced in the South Pacific Region which goes relatively unnoticed in the international society. According to information publicized by the Lowy Institute, a think-tank headquartered in Australia, during the 10 years from 2006, China has provided significant financial support to Papua New Guinea (USD 632 million), Fiji (USD 360 million), Vanuatu (USD 244 million), Samoa (USD 230 million), and Tonga (USD 172 million). In March of this year, the King Tupou VI of Tonga met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and agreed to receive a large-scale financial assistance, and China is becoming an indispensable nation to many southern-pacific island countries.
On the other hand, China’s expansion into the South Pacific Region under its belt and road initiative has one distinct feature which is not found in its advance into other regions. This is the relationship with Taiwan. Today, the South Pacific Region is effectively becoming the forefront of the competition for winning diplomatic relationships between China and Taiwan, which is rarely seen in other parts of the globe.
In recent years, the number of countries which has diplomatic relations with Taiwan is decreasing, and even this year, Dominica of the Caribbean Ocean, Burkina Faso of Africa, and Ecuador of Central America severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Today the number of countries which has diplomatic relations with Taiwan has decreased to 17 countries. Of those, six countries are in the South Pacific region. The countries which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan are the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of Nauru, and the Republic of Kiribati. There are 8 countries which have diplomatic relations with China, the Republic of Fiji, the Independent State of Samoa, the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Cook Islands, Kingdom of Tonga, and Niue. Some of the countries have in the past switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China, or from China to Taiwan; however, today the South Pacific Region is not only a strategic region where it is aiming to expand its influence through economic support, but it is also a likely place for “crushing Taiwan”.
In the South Pacific Region, there is an institution called “Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)” (established in 1971, headquartered in Suva, the capital of Fiji) which has the role as a regional international organization, and China is also aiming to become closer to this organization. One of the objectives for this is to strengthen its influence, even indirectly, over PIF member countries which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and one can see China’s political aim to realize the scenario to sever diplomatic ties between those 7 countries and Taiwan.
Also, searching for the regions’ strategic importance for China, there is the trade relationship with the Latin American countries. Sea lanes for China are the Middle East& Africa route which goes through the Indian Ocean, the European route and North America route which goes through the Arctic Ocean, as well as the South Pacific route which goes through the Pacific Ocean. As commonly known, in recent years, economic ties between China and the Latin American countries are strengthening. China is trying to strengthen the effectiveness of the South Pacific route by making the South Pacific Region a transit point between it and the Latin American countries. If one looks at the world map, the South Pacific Region is at a geographically convenient spot as a transit point between China and the Latin American countries.
Also, in recent years, the concept of “the Indo-Pacific” which focuses on the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean is becoming used in international politics, and the movement towards protecting national security by entire regions among nations who share the concept of freedom and democracy is accelerating, such as Japan & U.S., and India & Australia. On the other hand, in the South Pacific, and in particular in Melanesia and Polynesia and ocean regions east of such regions, there is almost no struggle for ruling power seen. China has the political intention to firmly grasp the South America route as a sea lane, by expanding its influence in such surrounding ocean regions, by reaching out behind the back of zones of U.S. influence.