Scholar: Pacific island nations should ward off PRC interference

Scholar: Pacific island nations should ward off PRC interference

Tom Abke

Pacific island nations should remain wary of persistent Chinese interest in their countries and defend against manipulation by the Chinese Communist Party, an Australian scholar warns.

Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute in Australia wrote that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been “steadily and significantly scaling up” its trade, foreign aid and diplomatic activities on the islands. In a July 20, 2020, essay published by the Brookings Institution, he said the uptick in PRC interest coupled with Beijing’s proclivity to promote opportunities for its state-owned enterprises through “large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans” could precipitate a Chinese sphere of influence that it will want to enlarge and defend.

The PRC’s interest in establishing a military base on the islands is less likely to come to fruition but would have great impact if successful, according to Pryke. “A Chinese military base as little as 2,000 kilometers from Australia’s eastern coast would force a wedge between Australia and its traditional strategic anchor, the United States,” he wrote.

He referred to suspicions that Beijing has been eyeing Vanuatu’s Santo island as a possible site. Vanuatu’s government denied reports that it had been in talks in 2018 with Beijing about a military base, according to the BBC. Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, warned in The Guardian newspaper in July 2019 that “establishing a base in our neighborhood would be a low-cost, low-risk way for China to show off its growing military and diplomatic reach and clout.”

The risk that the PRC will infiltrate and corrupt local decision-making is a more immediate concern, according to Pryke. Through “elite capture and corruption,” Chinese officials and businesspeople seek to undermine “institutions of governance which Western donors spend considerable money trying to support.”

Media reports from the region add credence to his comments. In the Marshall Islands, Chinese investors engineered a no-confidence vote in then-President Hilda Heine in November 2018 when she opposed their scheme to build a tax-free shipping port favoring offshore companies, Heine told Radio New Zealand at the time.

The region appears to be more aware of these tactics, Pryke wrote. Other than Vanuatu, pictured, no Pacific island nation has taken on new debt from the PRC since 2018. Risks remain, but there are reasons for optimism.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic does provide China an opportunity to further grow its influence in the Pacific, the cost will be much higher,” he concluded. “Greater resolve from the West, greater awareness within the Pacific, and growing financial demands at home and abroad may all make the price of China’s aspiring influence in the Pacific too high for the country to bear.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.