China Matters in the South Pacific

Anne-Marie Brady, BA, MA Auckland, PhD ANU is a Professor in Political Science at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. She is a fluent Mandarin speaker, who specialises in Chinese foreign and domestic politics and polar politics. She has written nine books and over forty scholarly articles on topics ranging from China and the South Pacific, China’s modern propaganda system, foreigner-management in China and competing foreign policy interests in Antarctica. Her edited book Looking North, Looking South: China, Taiwan, and the South Pacific (Singapore: World Scientific, 2010) explores the wide range of perspectives on China’s activities in the South Pacific. For a full list of her publications, see here.

This article should be read in tandem with Graeme Smith’s ‘China in the Pacific: Zombie Ideas Stalk On’, In Brief, State Society and Governance Program, CAP, ANU, 2015/2.—The Editors


We are opposed to the bullying of big region strong countries over the small or weak countries. The Chinese are opposed to the imposition of isolation by some countries over Fiji, and China will continue to talk to relevant countries to engage in constructive and equal footing engagement and on the basis of equality and solidarity (sic) of differences.—Wu Bangguo[1]

In September 2012, the Chinese political elder Wu Bangguo lashed out at ‘some countries’ who he claimed were isolating Fiji, accusing them of ‘bullying’. It was a rare intervention by a Chinese politician in the politics of the South Pacific, reflecting the close connections that have built up between China and Fiji as well as other states in in the region in the last fifteen years.

China is now a leading player in the South Pacific and multiple Chinese political and economic actors are engaging with the region. Taiwan has been a key factor for China’s interest in the region, but it is not the only one. So what are the range of China interests and how did we get in the current situation?

A Strategic Triangle

In the 1980s, New Zealand (no doubt acting on behalf of its alliance partners) actively courted China’s involvement in the South Pacific as a balance to the Soviet Union’s incursions into the region. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon told Deng Xiaoping in 1980, ‘any support China could give to the island states of the [Pacific] Forum whether political or economic would help maintain political stability in the South Pacific’. Nonetheless, while establishing diplomatic relations with all the Pacific states as they emerged from colonisation, for many years China evinced very little interest in Pacific affairs, except when it challenged the One China policy.

The Taiwan Factor

From 1999 China adopted a more assertive foreign policy in the South Pacific and changes in Taiwan politics were the main reason why. Six (out of fourteen) Pacific Island Forum states recognise the Republic of China (ROC): Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands. From 1999 to 2008, beginning with the statement of ROC President Lee Teng-hui on the ‘two states theory’ of China-Taiwan relations and continuing throughout the subsequent presidency of Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008), the ROC adopted a more aggressive strategy to maintain its international space and China responded accordingly. The subsequent heightened diplomatic rivalry between the PRC and ROC was a de-stabilising factor in political upheavals in the Solomons, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati, and the Marshalls; adding to and accentuating existing problems.

Yet since 2008 Mainland China-Taiwan relations have been in a holding pattern — due to the election of ROC President Ma Ying-jeou who adopted a more moderate foreign policy and is willing to negotiate with the PRC. So why then is China still so engaged in the South Pacific and even increasing the level of its engagement? The answer is that multiple actors are now involved in Chinese foreign policy. There is not a China Inc strategy of dealing with the South Pacific — or other regions of the world. These interests (at times conflicting), along with the interests of Pacific players is causing a perfect storm which is impacting on the interests of traditional partners in the Pacific as well as on other political forces in the region.

China’s Economic Interests in the South Pacific

Beijing’s ‘going out strategy’ from 1999 on has encouraged Chinese businesses to go global. More than 3,000 Chinese companies now operate in Pacific Island Forum (PIF) countries, from mining ventures to restaurants and grocery stores. Chinese State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have invested in Pacific fishing, nickel, timber, seabed mining, petroleum, tourism and are having a major impact on local economies — not all of it good. For example in the last few years state-subsidised Chinese fishing boats have virtually wiped out the Fijian tuna fishing industry.

China’s Political Interests in the Pacific

Since 2008 China has been following an increasingly proactive and assertive global foreign policy. China is looking for diplomatic partners to support this new foreign policy and PIF states are a significant voting bloc. While Taiwanese commentators talk of a ‘diplomatic truce’ between the ROC and PRC since 2008, this term or formulation 提法 is absent from PRC political discourse. In 2015, only twenty-two countries now recognise the ROC. Despite all China’s diplomatic efforts in the South Pacific throughout the 2000s, the six PIF states continue to recognize the ROC, making up close to one third of the countries in the world which maintain relations with Taipei. Moreover, two new sovereign states are soon to emerge from the region: New Caledonia and Tahiti. Chinese interests have already established strong business links with indigenous groups in these two French colonies — to the consternation of France.

Like many rising great powers before it, China is increasingly setting up its own groupings of like-minded of states, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or helping nurture other alternate groupings of states that will break through existing blocs of power. In the South Pacific China helps fund the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Pacific Island Development Forum, rival regional groupings to the PIF which pointedly exclude Australia and New Zealand.

China also seeks to curb the influence of ‘anti-China’ elements in the Chinese diaspora. There are an estimated 80, 000 Overseas Chinese now living within the PIF states; between 20,000-30,000 are illegal migrants. Cultural clashes, criminal activities, and conflicting political interests between these burgeoning communities of New Chinese 新侨 and locals have been factors in major unrest in Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, and the Solomons in the last ten years.

China’s Strategic Interests in the South Pacific

China’s emerging maritime strategy is focused on protecting sea lanes of communication; which includes establishing alternative sea routes in times of political crisis and setting up friendly ports for military and quasi-military visits. For more than ten years China’s space programme’s Yuanwang 6 mobile tracking vessel has docked in Suva and Papeete during space launches. China is also seeking privileged access to supplies of raw materials. China now has significant investment in Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia mines, and is the main market for Solomons timber.

Chinese Aid

PRC has rapidly become one of the top PIF aid donors and eighty-five percent of its aid is in the form of soft loans. Unlike the other top two major aid donors in the region, the USA and France, who only provide aid to their former or existing colonies in the South Pacific, China gives aid, soft loans, and preferential trade to all its diplomatic partners in the region as well as offering ‘incentives’ to the leaders of non-diplomatic partners to get them to swap recognition. In April 2006 at a meeting in Suva Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a massive increase in China’s aid to the region, offering $US492 million in soft loans, as well as multiple other benefits such as training for 2000 officials — but only offering this to the PRC’s eight diplomatic partners in the region.

China’s aid focuses on high-profile projects such as Apia’s white elephant Olympic swimming pool built for the 2007 South Pacific Games. China has so far refused to participate in the Pacific Plan, the Pacific region’s aid strategy programme; although in 2012, after years of negotiating with New Zealand they did agree to cooperate on one small project, a water processing plant in the Cook Islands.

China’s aid to the South Pacific appears to have benefited China most of all. Contracts are only given to Chinese firms, materials must be provided by China, and much of the labour is provided by China too. As a result of this increase in assistance from China (via its Exim Bank), Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Samoa now each owe significant debts to China; with no prospects of being able to pay them back under normal conditions. China has refused to forgive the loans, so the question of how these tiny economies may repay the massive loans remains. Will China accept land leases, preferential access to resources, votes at international organisations, or all of the above in return?

Almost all the aid projects currently China has in the Pacific came from the 2006 meeting — perfect timing in terms of back-up for the December 2006 Bainimarama coup in Fiji. Bainimarama’s hand was strengthened by China’s aid agenda, and he was able to afford to ignore economic and political sanctions imposed by New Zealand and Australia. Subsequent to the 2006 coup China did not support efforts to cut back Fiji’s peacekeeping duties; a crucial income for Fiji as well as source of the bloated size of the Fijian military and the role it has taken in local politics since the first coup of 1987.

The ‘China Card’ and Pacific Elites

From the point of view of many Pacific Island leaders playing the ‘China card’ is one of the few leverages they have to get increased aid. Western donors want ‘good governance’ as a condition of aid and take a stance on Pacific politics; which is not always welcome. China grants funding for infrastructure projects — as well as vanity projects — which would not otherwise attract external funding. Some leaders are also attracted to partnering more with China, India, Korea and other relatively new players in the region due to nascent anti-colonialist sentiment against traditional allies. Asia is thus becoming an appealing alternative support base for a more independent South Pacific foreign policy. However not all political forces in the region welcome China’s influence in regional politics. In October 2012 former Fijian Prime Minister (and ex-coup leader) Sitiveni Rambuka spoke to me about his disquiet about the undue influence of China on Fijian politics and the level of debt that Fiji was building up with China. Yet the following year, when he was a candidate in the coming Fijian elections and facing the possibility of having to work with Chinese diplomats again, Rambuka had perhaps predictably, completely changed his tune.

The Outcome

The outcome of China’s growing interests in the region — and the regional factors which encouraged the expanse of Chinese interests — has been a ‘perfect storm’ formed out of colliding events:

  • The Bainimarama regime was given legitimacy by China’s support; allowing it to undermine traditional instruments of power which could have acted as opposition forces: the media, Methodist Church, Great Council of Chiefs, political parties. So, deliberately or not, since 2006 China’s actions helped to undermine genuine democracy in Fiji
  • Australia, New Zealand, the USA and other Pacific partners were forced to blink on the political situation in Fiji and go along with a demonstrably unfair election in 2014 which further legitimised Bainimarama’s hold on power
  • In 2012, Wu Banguo said what Bainimarama wanted to hear — but it sent a message to other political leaders in the Pacific too of China’s willingness to intervene in their politics and support non-democratic forces
  • China’s actions helped to weaken the unity of the Pacific Island Forum; and strengthened the rise of a rival group the Melanesian Spearhead Group
  • Multiple Chinese actors are coming into the Pacific region with conflicting interests; in time Pacific nations may seek to re-balance China’s influence in the region and mitigate the negative impacts
  • Australia and New Zealand have been put in the uneasy situation of trying to balance their own relationships with China against their concerns about the negative impact of China’s engagement in our part of the world.

The South Pacific region is not as important to China as say Southeast Asia or Africa; but its interests there have had a disproportionate effect on both local politics and economics. To say so is not ‘threat talk’, but is of interest to regional partners such as New Zealand, Australia, France, and USA as it directly touches on their interests as it does too on the interests of the people and the leaders of this vulnerable region.



[1] Statement by Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, at the bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, Friday 21st, 2012, Sheraton Hotel, Denarua. This is the original version of the speech released to me by Fijian government officials in 2012. Subsequently the Fijian government put out another version of the speech with this paragraph removed.