I got up early to do a TV interview about the recent (and ongoing) trip by the PRC foreign minister around the SW Pacific looking to sign bilateral and multilateral agreements. I never got to discuss the concept of “sphere of influence” as it applies to the power play, nor the fact that the territorial size and resource exploitation potential of any potential PRC-Pacific Island community multilateral economic and security agreement would mark a major shift in the Pacific strategic balance of power. But I did get to try and put the recent moves in broader context, which is unusual for a TV talking head. You can see the interview here.
It could perhaps be that the Chinese are only interested in soft power, economic and development, and possibly supporting votes in the UN. Arguably they have a genuine reason to forward base at Djibouti to protect the sea lanes from piracy. And they are not the only ones with bases at Djibouti.and possibly that’s all they want in SCS as well. But there’s no obvious need for them to use their military in the south pacific.But the western media want to paint the Chinese as bad evil imperial to sometime soon create a casus belli to be able then to knock them down a few pegs what would you say?
And it might sound trivial, but don’t forget the fish. The combined ocean territory of these island nations is a huge chunk of the South Pacific fisheries.
Yes, I had no time to get specific on what I mean by “resource exploitation” but I was thinking of tuna fisheries in particular. The proposed deal with Kiribati to have the PRC manage fishing stocks in their EEZ is a potential nightmare. Or perhaps not, depending on how the PRC approaches the subject. Also, we had no time to get into climate change, which as it turns out was a topic that the PIF leaders criticised the PRC for (its inaction) at yesterday’s multilateral meeting in Suva. So it may well be the case that the PIF know how to use their geopolitical leverage now that there is great power competition for influence in the region.
Although I have strong personal views about whether the PRC is a benign or malign power, I try to not let it color my assessments of its foreign policy behaviour. As such, I will simply say that it is doing what it believes necessary to achieve full Great Power status, and that includes projecting soft as well as hard (and smart and sharp) power in distant places, just as Western powers did previously in order to fuel their empires and rise to prominence. The concern is that just like in previous eras, this will lead to (neo-) imperial wars in contested regions, of which the SoPac has now become one.