Are the South-Pacific Islands becoming a new center of global strategic competition? In recent years, it appears as though the traditional power balance in the South Pacific is shifting. Australia, the region’s historical leader, has entered an era of complicated relations with its Pacific neighbours, whilst China’s regional presence and influence is on the rise. Although strategic competition in the region is still understudied, even by states themselves, it is likely that strategic competition in the South Pacific will emerge as a globally significant issue in the coming years.

Australia’s Role in the Pacific 

Australia is a global middle power, and for many years has taken a leading role in the South-Pacific where it is a diplomatic and economic power. Successive Australian governments have identified the South-Pacific islands as their ‘Pacific Family’ and – in more geopolitical terms – a sphere of influence. However, despite historical, cultural and economic connections to the region, the relationship is highly unequal. Australia is one of the world’s largest economies, whereas the South-Pacific is one of the world’s most aid-dependent regions. In a region where aid makes up a higher proportion of national income than in any other region in the world, Australia is by far the most significant donor, contributing $856 million to the region in 2017, more than the next four largest combined. 

A key institution through which Australia is able to exercise its influence and cultivate regional relationships is the Pacific Islands Forum, a multilateral organisation made up of 18 South-Pacific Islands including Fiji, Kiribati, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Vanuatu amongst many others.

As the largest economy in the forum, a regional-trade power, and a prominent actor in many other international groupings such as the G20 and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), Australia has traditionally had a leading role in the Pacific Islands Forum, and in general matters of cooperation and integration with its regional neighbours. 

The Australian Government’s Pacific Step-Up is a recent initiative designed to launch a “new chapter in relations with our Pacific family”. As part of the Step-Up, Australia announced $2 billion in funding for the new Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) and is providing high-speed telecommunications infrastructure to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands through the Coral Sea Cable.

Despite the Australian government’s rhetoric in support of deeper regional integration, Pacific communities believe Australia has abandoned the South-Pacific in crucial areas. Instead, they believe Australia is using its regional power for its own interests, rather than assisting the Pacific with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

At the Pacific Island Forum in August, Australia ardently defended its coal mining sector and attempted to water down the final communiqué. Australia opposed the inclusion of a goal to achieve regional decarbonisation by 2050 and disendorsed calls to limit global temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. At many points during the forum, it looked like Australia’s hardline and isolationist stance would see talks collapse completely.

Deputy Prime-Minister Michael Mccormack said that Pacific Islands will survive the climate crisis because “many of their workers come here to pick our fruit.”

Australia’s isolationism on climate issues is damaging its regional reputation and relationships. The insensitivity of Australian politicians to Pacific issues is further undermining Australia’s standing in the South-Pacific. In August, during the Pacific Islands Forum, Australian deputy Prime-Minister Michael Mccormack said that Pacific Islands will survive the climate crisis because “many of their workers come here to pick our fruit.”

Despite the fact that rising sea-levels and ocean acidification present existential threats to many of the Pacific-Islands states, the Australian government is prioritising domestic political and economic interests over the wellbeing (and indeed survival) of its closest neighbors. As director of the Asia Society Policy Institute, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said that Australia’s action during the forum will “go down in the history of Australian foreign policy as a fundamental turning point in undermining its enduring national interests in the Pacific.”

Furthermore, Australia’s alienation of the people of the South Pacific is shifting the power map of the region. With Australia’s regional relationships increasingly tense and fragile, countries such as China are beginning to assert themselves as significant players in the region, with Rudd adding, “The Australian government has left the region as a political vacuum that China is now likely to seek to occupy.”

China’s Growing Regional Presence 

Australia’s disengagement in the Pacific (despite the current government’s claims to a “Pacific Step-Up”) parallels a broader trend in which the People’s Republic of China is seeking to increase its political and economic influence in the region. 

Through initiatives and projects such as the Luganville Wharf redevelopment in Vanuatu, or the Faleolo International Airport Terminal in Samoa, China is seeking to grow its trade relationships with Pacific-Island states, increase its diplomatic influence over the region and further isolate Taiwan. As evidence to this, in September 2019 both the Solomon Islands and the state of Kiribati formally recognised the People’s Republic of China and cut diplomatic relations of Taiwan. September’s defections reduced Taiwan’s number of global diplomatic allies from 17 to only 15, of which four (Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands) are fellow Pacific-Island states. 

China’s growing diplomatic influence in the region is tied to increasing aid flows, which increased from $91 million in 2011 to $170 million as of 2017.

China’s growing diplomatic influence in the region is tied to increasing aid flows, which increased from $91 million in 2011 to $170 million as of 2017. For the current financial year, they have promised over $4 billion to the region, which would make China the region’s largest aid donor. However, it is unlikely that this figure will be realised.  Kiribati’s decision to change allegiances was reportedly in response to offers of planes and ferries from the Chinese government, and the promise of increased aid and developing funding. 

Similarly, rumours of a Chinese military presence in the region continue to circulate in the Australian media, with China’s increasing aid and development projects in Vanuatu being tied to plans for a military base in the country. Due to the polarisation of the ‘China debate’ in Australian, many see the possibility of a Chinese military presence in the South-Pacific as a direct threat to Australian and regional security.  Whilst Australian, Chinese and Vanuatian officials have all denied the rumours, China’s presence in the region is undoubtedly increasing. 

A Changing Regional Landscape

Regardless of whether China does indeed seek a military presence in the South Pacific, it is clear that China’s diplomatic and economic influence in the South Pacific is increasing. This has implications not only for Australia, where the South Pacific has traditionally been seen as a sphere of influence, but also for the Indo-Pacific as a whole, and global power competition between the United States (Australia’s closest ally) and China (Australia’s largest trading partner). China, through its growing presence in the region, is able to place more pressure on Taiwan’s diplomatic standing, expand its own trade networks, and strengthen its bilateral and multilateral relationships.

This strategic competition in the region is increasingly being recognised, with the Singapore International Institute for Strategic Studies including a session on South-Pacific strategic competition at a regional security conference in June, as well as at institutions such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who have recent began discussing the implications of increasing strategic competition in the South Pacific. 

How Australia engages with China and its neighbours in the South Pacific will have lasting consequences on the Indo-Pacific region, and is likely to become an area of increasing global attention in the coming years. Whether China and Australia can coexist as important players in the South-Pacific region remains to be seen, as is how the United States will respond to its historical ally being (at least partially) displaced in the region. Finally, all of this is occurring during a period in which the island states of the South Pacific face existential threats due to climate change and rising sea levels. A period of strategic competition in which they are the playing pieces is a cause for serious concern amongst the globe’s most climate-vulnerable populations.