China and South Pacific: Vigilance Needed Against Beijing’s Expanding Influence

China is increasingly using the Solomon Islands as a springboard to expand its influence in the South Pacific, a situation that challenges the U.S.-led international order. The United States, Australia and Japan must remain vigilant.

China and the Solomon Islands have deepened their ties since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2019, and they concluded a security agreement last year. The agreement is believed to allow the deployment of the Chinese military in the Solomon Islands and port calls by Chinese naval vessels.

In July, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare visited China and held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The leaders agreed to strengthen economic ties and also signed a police cooperation agreement. The agreement is believed to stipulate that China will cooperate in a wide range of areas related to public order, including measures against cybercrime and safeguarding security.

China is obviously using the Solomon Islands as a bridgehead to accelerate its advances in the South Pacific, where the influence of the United States and Australia has traditionally been strong.

In his meeting with Xi, Sogavare reportedly said he opposes any acts to restrain China, apparently referring to the United States increasing pressure on China. Matters appear to be proceeding in accordance with Beijing’s wishes.

The Solomon Islands does not have its own military and is having trouble maintaining public order. During an anti-government uprising two years ago, the Solomon Islands hosted security forces from Australia and other countries, and received assistance from China, including the dispatch of police officers and the provision of batons. The economy is also fragile, and infrastructure development is an issue.

China took advantage of this fragility in the Solomon Islands’ social and economic infrastructure. With the latest agreement, China will be deeply involved in the economy, security and maintaining public order. China’s influence on the Solomon Islands’ state management will probably increase dramatically.

The adverse effects of developing countries excessively leaning toward China are already becoming apparent.

Cambodia has often been viewed as representing China’s position at international conferences in Southeast Asia because Cambodia’s authoritarian regime is supported by massive amounts of Chinese aid. Sri Lanka is struggling to repay its debt to China and has been forced to effectively hand over its interests in a port to China.

There is no guarantee that something similar will not happen in the South Pacific in the future.

While the island nations welcome China’s economic support, their key concern is not to be caught between the United States and China. It is not desirable for the Pacific Ocean, which should be a free and open sea, to become the site of a struggle for supremacy because of China’s actions, which appear to be aimed at pulling island nations into its own camp.

The United States and Australia need to increase their engagement to ensure that the rule of law and freedom of navigation are maintained in the region.

It is important for Japan to cooperate with the United States and Australia to support such fields as infrastructure development, measures against global warming and human resource development, all of which are common issues for island nations, and to help solidify their foundations as countries.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 21, 2023)