Chinese President Xi Jinping and Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister Peter O'Neill attend the hand-over ceremony of the China-assisted Independence Boulevard in Port Moresby, PNG. Scramble for the Pacific: Small island states play the new Great Game16 Nov, 2018: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister Peter O'Neill attend the handover ceremony of the China-assisted Independence Boulevard in Port Moresby, PNG. [photo credit: Fei Maohua/Xinhua/Alamy Live News]

While much of the world nervously eyes Russia’s war in Ukraine, a potentially more seismic geopolitical realignment is quietly taking place in the Pacific region – and it is one in which the Commonwealth’s smallest member states may play pivotal roles.

Beijing’s traditional world-view of its security interests – which it sees in terms of concentric circles radiating from China – is increasingly bumping up against Washington’s global projection of its own power (which it prefers to call the ‘rules-based international order’), directly and through its allies.

The Pentagon’s most recent National Defense Strategy, published last October, declares: ‘The most comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security is the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China’s) coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests.’ The communiqué a year earlier about China’s meeting with Pacific Islands’ foreign ministers stated in more neutral terms: ‘Countries reaffirmed that they firmly abide by the one-China principle and stressed the importance of upholding the principle of non-interference of internal affairs in international relations’ and emphasised ‘cooperation in various areas under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative to realize common development’.

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‘Asian Nato’

The US paper pledges ‘key infrastructure investments’ and ‘security cooperation’ to build capacity to ‘deploy forces globally at the time and place of our choosing’. A White House briefing in February 2022 promised to build on the alliance with Australia and ‘strengthen relationships’ with other Commonwealth members including India (a member with Australia of the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ or Quad, which China regards as an ‘Asian Nato’), Malaysia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

In US military planning, there are several ‘island chains’ that act as geographical lines of defence (or offence, the Chinese might say). In this cold war concept, repurposed for containing China, Commonwealth states are key links in each island chain: the first runs from Japan to Malaysia, the second from Japan to Papua New Guinea, the third from Hawaii through Fiji to New Zealand, with Australia acting as a sort of backstop.

The US ‘wants to project more power … across the region,’ the Economist said. ‘American-led war-games are becoming bigger and more sophisticated.’ This has included basing US air force and marine units in Australia, supplying nuclear submarines to Australia with Britain under the Aukus deal; developing new weapons, such as hypersonic missiles; and holding Quad naval exercises with India, with which it recently agreed a series of defence deals.

‘Tribal chieftains’

The Chinese are also busy wielding political heft and economic leverage to expand their influence in Asia. In May, President Xi Jinping hosted five leaders of neighbouring countries at a summit ‘infused with imagery from the Tang dynasty’, when China ruled much of central Asia. Bekzat Maqsutuly, an activist in Kazakhstan opposed to a Chinese-Kazakh deal, said: ‘It looked like an emperor receiving tribal chieftains.’

Where the diplomatic competition between Washington and Beijing seems most stark is in the smaller states fringing and dotting the Pacific Ocean. Anthony Blinken, US secretary of state, recently visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) to sign bilateral defence and maritime security agreements and meet leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum. The US State Department said Blinken would ‘discuss a range of issues with Pacific Islands leaders, including shared priorities such as tackling the climate crisis [and] advancing inclusive economic growth for the people of the Pacific Islands’.

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What was left unsaid was the rising concern of the Americans at the headstart gained by Beijing, which built the six-lane motorway, lined with bus stops marked ‘China aid’, that carried Blinken from the airport. The Chinese also built a convention centre and PNG’s tallest tower block (the latter never used due to safety defects). After China built a military hospital there, Australia built new barracks for the PNG army.

‘Pacific governments are relishing their place in the sun,’ Gordon Peake, an adviser for the Pacific Islands at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, told AFP. ‘“Friends to all, enemies to none,” is the informal foreign policy mantra of most Pacific nations and they’re sticking to it, to great net effect.’ Those not in government, however, are more wary. ‘The investments are too attractive to ignore but we are also suspicious. If we are not able to repay, they might come and take our properties,’ said a 63-year-old former civil servant in the PNG capital, Port Moresby.

Legal immunity

PNG’s prime minister, James Marape, is certainly playing nice with all the superpowers. ‘The friendship between PNG and China is timeless … Nothing can stand in the way of further growth of PNG-China relations,’ he told Xi in November. In March he told a Beijing envoy: ‘China is the leader in trade and commerce in our region.’ Two months later, he signed a deal giving US personnel and contractors legal immunity, and allowing US aircraft, vehicles and vessels to move freely within its territory and waters. ‘The US and PNG have a long history with shared experiences and this will be a continuation of that same path,’ he told Blinken. The same week, Marape touched the feet of Narendra Modi, as India’s prime minister arrived in PNG; he hailed Modi as ‘leader of the global south’.

Meanwhile, just weeks after PNG signed its defence pact with the US, its nearest fellow Commonwealth member state, the Solomon Islands, agreed to expand security co-operation with China. In a meeting this week, the Solomon Islands’ prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, Xi and Li Qiang, the Chinese prime minister, signed nine agreements, including a deal on police co-operation, as part of a drive to deepen their ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. There was also a sports aid project – China is building a stadium in Honiara, the Solomons’ capital, which is hosting this year’s Pacific Games.

A security agreement last year between the Solomons and the Chinese sparked a fierce reaction within the country and across the region, with an adviser to a provincial leader in the Solomons warning that Sogavare could use Chinese armed police and soldiers to quash democratic dissent and cling to power for years. Unnerved by China’s growing influence, the US reopened its embassy in the Solomons in February.

‘It has been years since [Pacific Island nations] enjoyed such favours from outside powers, in terms of high-level visits, offers of investment and other commitments,’ John Blaxland, of the Australian National University, told the Economist. ‘The island countries are increasingly binding America and China into a web of Pacific obligations. It could make the region stronger – and, by restraining the adventurism of both powers, perhaps even safer.’

But in this geopolitical manoeuvring, small island developing states such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomons are pawns in a far bigger war game. And, as in chess, they are the most expendable pieces on the board.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

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