Is China’s increasing presence in the South Pacific region cause for alarm?
China’s post-1970 growth into a political and economic East-Asian powerhouse has brought about rapid relations change in the Asia-Pacific region, especially within South Pacific (SP), which over the past three decades has seen unprecedented foreign aid and investment from China. China argues that its goals are a reflection of its uniqueness as the world’s first truly benevolent global power, however, with many historically western-aligned south-pacific countries becoming increasingly alarmed at China’s growing influence, the question has become, is China’s presence in the region cause for alarm? To determine whether China’s increasing presence in the SP region is cause for alarm, this paper will examine the separate rationale for Chinese SP presence, in both, domestic-constructivist thought and high-politics realist thought. This paper will then conclude who it is cause for alarm for, and identify two selected works of international relations literature, written by esteemed theorists that support that conclusion.
Why the South Pacific?
The SP region is unique in that it has very different foreign policy identifiers than other regions China has engaged in. The three major factors that would normally dictate Chinese regional engagement aren’t present within the SP, with the region lacking cheap and high quantity labour that Chinese investment into African nations has brought, lacking the strategic geopolitical land possession that central Asian countries have provided China, and lacking any territorial disputes with China, which has previously dictated Chinese investment into regions like Kashmir. Thus, there is a distinct break from precedent in China’s practices in the SP, leading theorists to look for other explanations, in both, domestic-constructivist and high-politics realist thought.
The Domestic-Constructivist approach.
It is under the premise of national rejuvenation in the face of its century of humiliation that China’s entry into the SP can be examined from a domestic-constructivist perspective. The century of humiliation is what constructivist scholars believe to be the backbone of modern Chinese foreign policy and a crucial point in China’s identity. The term refers to the collective events between 1839 and 1949 that created massive political fragmentation and saw ‘western’ powers take advantage of China and its territories. Modern Chinese leadership has modelled itself on overcoming the weight of the century of humiliation through a process of ‘national rejuvenation.’ This national rejuvenation has focused on ‘looking inwards’ to understand China’s national identity—specifically to traditional Chinese ideas such as Confucianism—to guide Chinese expansion. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1991, the Chinese Communist Party focused on developing a new social contract with the broader Chinese public, one centred around trust, moderate transparency, social stability and economic growth. As part of this, under Xi Jinping’s presidency, China has focused on expanding the ‘Chinese dream,’ a Sino-centric version of the ‘American dream’ which focuses on prosperity, collective struggle, socialism with Chinese characteristics and national glory. With both the Chinese dream and the new social contract of economic advancement, Chinese leadership has focused on large scale economic initiatives, specifically the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to create new infrastructure and transport systems, mimicking the ancient silk road, that had previously made China prosperous. Accordingly, a domestic constructivist approach dictates that China’s entry into the South-Pacific, is part of advancing economic growth for both the region and China, through upgrading infrastructure for local communities, in order to provide a future access point for goods to be traded as part of the BRI.
Beyond, economic initiatives, there is an identifiable effort by China to target and establish ties with countries which have previously fallen at the behest of colonial powers, in an alignment process that China describes as a ‘collective struggle.’ This collective struggle has and continues to define Chinese foreign policy, explicitly shaping their engagement within the SP. With China’s reopening to the world in 1971, Chinese leadership recognised that they were not alone in their previous struggles against colonialism. Focusing first on state-to-state ties, China has successfully built up diplomatic relations with other victims of colonialism; with many SP nations having experienced colonialism first hand, there is an obvious opportunity for international alignment. China has been keen to exploit this shared link to colonialism as a way to establish a foothold in the region. SP nations are considered high-context cultures, meaning that their societies place more emphasis on relationship building and maintenance than others; thus, this shared link to colonialism has served as a ‘foot in the door,’ for Chinese companies to partake in investment within the region. With modern Chinese leadership preaching the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,’ and asserting China’s place as the world’s first benevolent superpower, there is both an apparent similarity between the plight of SP countries and China, and an opportunity for China to practice what it preaches. Accordingly, a domestic constructivist perspective on the issue, dictates that China is driven into the SP due to its policy of alignment with countries that have struggled against colonialism, and an actual desire to invest and aid regions that have historically been neglected.
Within this constructed identity of collective struggle, China has posed South-South cooperation; a developmental framework that highlights the need for southern hemisphere countries to work together towards mutual advancement. Born from the principles of peaceful coexistence, and the southern regions shared history of colonialism, China has used the premise of south-south development to strengthen engagement with Pacific nations. Through this South-South cooperation, China has cultivated an image of working to further the interests of nations that have historically been disregarded, presenting itself as a benevolent global power. Chinese initiatives like BRI have been vital in building this south-south developmental identity. The BRI would take a key detour into the SP, exemplifying the commitment of the Chinese government to advancing the economies of the SP; which has, in turn, become a rallying cry for more collaboration between governments and the private sector within the region. Unlike traditional partners within the southern pacific—such as Australia and New Zealand—who have cultivated long-term relationships with states, China has failed to do so. Their most notable failure on this front came from their state investments in Fiji, which saw large infrastructure development projects fail due to the lack of understanding of indigenous politics, which prioritises relationship cultivation over simple monetary investment. China’s experience in Fiji laid bare its deficiencies as an aid provider and showed that because China is new to foreign aid, they are still ‘learning as they go.’ More importantly, the experience showed a need for China and Chinese private subsidiaries to understand the local indigenous politics and high-context customs, that must accompany infrastructure investment associated with the BRI. A domestic constructivist perspective makes it clear that China’s entry into the SP is heavily focused on BRI and mutual south-south development objectives.
The High-Politics Realist approach.
Realist explanations for China’s increasing presence in the SP, paint China as a dominant and belligerent hegemon, working only to better its position by careful resource acquisition and geo- strategic possession of land; however, this paints an incorrect and uncharacteristically narrow picture of Chinese interest’s in the SP.
When looking at Chinese presence in the SP from a high-politics realist foreign policy lens, one could conclude that China has relatively nefarious goals. The SP’s proximity to the Chinese mainland has supported continuous American presence in contested territories like South China Sea, and allowed US aligned partner states such as Australia and New Zealand, to partake in RIMPAC ‘show of force’ military exercises. It is within this environment that China chose to increase investment within the SP, in what many realists perceive to be an effort to counter-balance US influence. Realist literature subsequently points to China’s foreign aid and investments in infrastructure in the SP as an effort to maintain friendly relations with nations ‘on its doorstep’ and gain geo-strategic land that can be used by the Chinese military if necessary. However, there are fatal flaws in the high-politics argument for China’s entry into the SP. When viewing infrastructure investments from a realist foreign policy lens, one can conclude that they have been undertaken to provide China with the necessary means to either hold hostage small-states, through debt-trap diplomacy or as a method to gain geo-strategic land. However, most evidence would point to this not being the case, as China has worked closely with both local government and international governments, to ensure that infrastructure investments were undertaken correctly. This was exemplified in the trilateral cooperation of Te Mato Vai, a fresh drinking water initiative in the Cook Islands, which saw China partner with both New Zealand and the local government to provide infrastructure investment. Although Te Mato Vai, by almost all metrics failed, Chinese intent for multilateral cooperation has allowed for the regulation of Chinese interest’s within SP nations, and in doing so, dealt a significant blow to realist foreign policy theory.
Concomitantly, a realist approach dictates that China’s entry into the SP is also to do with the politics of ROC/Taiwan recognition. Currently, four of the 15 states that recognise Taiwan, are island nations within the SP, and thus, many realists believe that China’s entry into the SP is either an indirect way of pressuring states not to side with Taiwan in the dispute, or even better, change their diplomatic stance in favour of China. However, there are far more malleable countries and regions that have recognised the ROC. Areas of central America and the West-indies have eight of the fifteen states that recognise the ROC; therefore, following that logic, one could assume strategic Chinese entry into those areas too. However, Chinese entry into these regions hasn’t occurred, with both central America and the west-indies, receiving a majority of their aid from richer northern American countries. Thus, Chinese SP entry isn’t as focused on ROC recognition as a realist outlook would imply.
Another realist explanation is that China’s entry into the SP is driven by a need for resources. The region, although not as resource-rich as the middle east or eastern Africa, does have key resources that are in need in the Chinese domestic market. Fishing rights for Chinese companies to come and trawl in SP waters and freshwater rights, have both been areas of interest for state-backed Chinese enterprises within the SP; with private company representatives showing a keen interest in acquiring such rights. However, there are far more lucrative regions in which both fish and freshwater could be acquired, specifically in coastal regions of east and west Africa, which already have an established Chinese presence. Thus, what could be considered as a ‘resource drive’ by China doesn’t make sense when viewed from a macro-level perspective. Although private Chinese companies have pursued some of these objectives within the region, it is clear that it isn’t yet symptomatic of a larger Chinese strategy within the SP.
Cause for alarm?
Chinese investment and foreign aid within the SP is both comparatively small compared to other regions it aids, and comparatively small compared to other foreign investment that has taken place within the region. Data provided by the Lowy Institute showed that Chinese investment in the SP from 2006 to 2016 totalled $1.78 billion USD ("Chinese Aid in the Pacific", 2016) compared to investment in Africa which numbered at $2.39 billion USD in 2016 alone. (“Chinese Investment in Africa,” 2018) This, on its own shows a very different regional focus than is alluded to by a realist foreign policy approach. With this in mind, Chinese Presence in the SP and whether it is cause for alarm depends on the political standpoint of the assessor. In a region that is and has historically been funded by foreign nations—specifically the USA, Australia and New Zealand— China’s funding alone shouldn’t be considered unusual. However, there is a significant trend in rhetoric that supports the conclusion that Chinese entry into the SP is an anglicised fear.
The journal article, China in Pacific Regional Politics, written by Denghua Zhang and Stephanie Lawson, reinforces a domestic-constructivist foreign policy viewpoint of Chinese SP entry, that emphasises the mutual aid and cooperation for South-South regional partners is peaceful, due to the regions shared developmental identity of collective struggle. Zhang and Lawson postulate, that “China’s enhanced presence and interest in the region has given PICs [Pacific Island Countries] more options in development assistance and foreign policy, especially since Chinese aid does not generally come with conditions. China has also sought to enhance its status in the region by emphasising its role as a South-South development partner.” (Zhang & Lawson, 2017) Zhang and Lawson’s claims contrast recent rhetoric from Australian politicians that have vehemently asserted that growing Chinese presence is a threat to the region’s security. Either through miseducation or xenophobia, there is a significant anglicised fear in both Australia and New Zealand, that China as a new actor in the region, is ‘swooping in’ and displacing both countries as significant aid givers and swaying sentiment towards China in doing so. However, Zhang and Lawson assert that “traditional donors are well entrenched in Pacific regionalism, and there is no doubt that there is a strong, mutual identity of interests in this sphere which will not easily be displaced by newer actors no matter how they project their image.” (Zhang & Lawson, 2017)
Conjointly, another journal article, That Is Not Intervention; That Is Interference with Chinese Characteristics, written by Camilla T. N. Sørensen, takes a joint realist and domestic-constructivist approach on the issue, asserting that China can no longer free-ride on international issues such as its expansion into the SP, and must take a proactive role in ensuring its intentions aren’t misinterpreted if it wants to continue to economically develop. Sørensen postulates that “It is increasingly pointed out how Chinese leaders can no longer free-ride and count on the US to assume the primary responsibility for ensuring the stability of the international system and for delivering the international public goods that China’s further developments depend on. That increases the pressures and the incentives for a more active Chinese great power role, for example in mediation, conflict resolution and peacebuilding.” (Sørensen, 2019) Within this changing international system, China must work on being fully aware of both the implications of failed deals on the high-context relationships within the region and the anglicised fear that exists within the two largest aid givers within the region, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, to ensure their actions aren’t taken out of context, they should ensure more substantial oversight of private companies operating in the region and appropriately deal with conflicts that arise.
On a micro level, precisely who China’s expansion into the SP causes alarm for, depends primarily on a states geo-political positioning; nevertheless, it is clear that China’s entry places the two current western-aligned regional powers—Australia and New Zealand—in a tough foreign policy position. It is clear that when assessing China’s history and foreign policy precedent, its SP entry is both logical and peaceful, especially when considered in the context of the regions shared history of collective struggle and China’s push for south-south cooperation. However, the populous of both Australia and New Zealand have significant fears regarding Chinese influence and expansion, which could test the trio’s relationship if a hard-line populist or anti-China government was voted into power. On a macro level, it is clear that China’s international intentions aren’t heavily focused on the SP; however, it must still step carefully and focus on building relationships within the region, if it wants to avoid alienation and conflict.
As this paper has examined, the high-politics realist arguments presented have crucial flaws in them; accordingly, as domestic-constructivist thought presents, China’s increasing presence in the SP region isn’t cause for immediate alarm. China’s interest’s in the SP region are largely driven by its benevolence, as a response to its shared history with the region, its South-South developmental aims and its common collective struggle.
Bowen Damask is an undergraduate student at the University of Auckland, currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History, Political Science and International Relations, and a Bachelor of Commerce in Economics and Finance. His research interests lie at the scholastic intersection of Political Economy and Finance.
Chinese Aid in the Pacific. (2016). Retrieved 9 September 2020, from https://chineseaidmap.lowyinstitute.org
Chinese Investment in Africa. (2018). Retrieved 9 September 2020, from http://www.sais-cari.org/chinese-investment-in-africa
Sørensen, C. (2019). That Is Not Intervention; That Is Interference with Chinese Characteristics: New Concepts, Distinctions and Approaches Developing in the Chinese Debate and Foreign and Security Policy Practice. The China Quarterly, 239, 594-613. doi:10.1017/S0305741018001728
Zhang, D., & Lawson, S. (2017). China in Pacific Regional Politics. The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal Of International Affairs, 106(2), 197-206. doi:10.1080/00358533.2017.1296705