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US Challenges China's Influence Over Pacific Island Countries, But Does It Have Much to Offer?

© AFP 2023 / STRChinese workers stand on a pier before a cargo ship at a port in Qingdao, east China's Shandong province on April 13, 2017
Chinese workers stand on a pier before a cargo ship at a port in Qingdao, east China's Shandong province on April 13, 2017 - Sputnik International, 1920, 13.07.2022
Washington has pledged to triple its aid to Pacific island nations to $60 million a year for a decade while seeking to curb China's influence in the region, which is rich in minerals, hydrocarbons, fish, and timber.
"For decades now, the Pacific Ocean can be fairly described as an American lake, in which the US strategic presence is actively supported by the Australian and to a lesser extent New Zealand economic and security presence," says Joseph Camilleri, emeritus professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
However, with the People's Republic of China's (PRC) swift economic rise, it's hardly surprising that Beijing has started to explore new possibilities in the Pacific, according to the academic.
"What has particularly troubled the United States and its principal ally in the South Pacific, Australia, is the fact that China is making inroads into what was until now considered to be an exclusive American sphere of influence," he stresses.
On July 13, Vice President Kamala Harris told the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva in a virtual address that US funding for the region would be stepped up to $60 million per year for 10 years. The newly announced endeavor includes more funding for fisheries, extra aid, and offers of new US embassies in the Pacific. In particular, the US is set to ink renewed fishing treaties with Pacific island nations allowing US vessels to fish in their exclusive economic zones (EEZ), and offering greater support for maritime surveillance in the Pacific. In addition to that, the Peace Corps – the United States government's volunteer program – will return to four countries, including Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu, according to CNN.
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"The timing of the pledge has much to do with the strategic competition between the United States and China," Camilleri explains. "In recent years, China has made considerable headway in developing its relations with [the Pacific Island Forum (PIF)] board, including cooperation in political, security and regional affairs, aid and development, COVID response and health, Ocean affairs and climate change, and much else."

The US attempt to assert its presence in the Pacific region also comes on the heels of the Quad IUU Fishing Initiative announced in late May, according to Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
The leaders of the Quad nations — Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – proposed a maritime surveillance initiative to establish a tracking system to combat illegal, unregulated, and unprotected (IUU) fishing. The Quad endeavor may be viewed as an extension of earlier initiatives against China's fishing activities in the South Pacific, according to the academic.
"The South Pacific region is presently one of the richest and most active fishery areas in the world," he highlights.
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Even if Half of Pacific Islands Ink China Pact, It'll be Beijing's Win

Two months ago, Beijing offered a draft agreement between China and 10 island nations spanning policing, security, fisheries, data, and a free trade zone. Some Pacific leaders have agreed to consider China's trade and security pact, while the others have voiced concerns that their rapprochement with Beijing could antagonize Washington.
"The Chinese proposal to establish a China-Pacific Islands cooperation framework agreement may not yet have won sufficient support but I expect that the Chinese side will persist with its proposal, and that it may be happy to proceed with it, even if only five or six Island states are prepared to sing such an agreement," says Camilleri.
Prior to that, in mid-April, the Chinese and the Solomon Islands governments formally signed a bilateral security agreement regardless of the displeasure voiced by the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Commenting on the pact on June 3, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored that its purpose is "to assist the Solomon Islands in maintaining social order." He vehemently denied Western media speculation about China's apparent plans to beef up its military presence in the region.
"China has come to the South Pacific region to build roads and bridges and improve the people’s lives, not to station troops or build military bases," Wang highlighted.
© MANDEL NGANUS President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021.
US President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 13.07.2022
US President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021.

US-China Competition for Pacific Islands Region Will Intensify

As the US and China's competition for the resource-rich region unfolds, it all depends on what Washington and Beijing can offer to Pacific island nations, according to Camilleri.
"It is doubtful that the paltry sum of $60 million offered by the United States can even begin to match what China is offering, or that it will greatly impress the Pacific Islands States meeting in Fiji," the professor suggests.
Furthermore, China has made substantial progress in building trade relations with the countries of the region as well as in establishing diplomatic ties with the PIF. The People's Republic was first invited to attend the PIF-related Talk on Establishing Dialogue Partnership held in Suva, Fiji, in 1988. Since 1990, China has attended the Post-Forum Dialogue meetings on a regular basis. In 2003, China announced its willingness to further expand economic ties with PIF member countries as well as to provide funding for the forum's secretariat.
"According to official Chinese figures, from 1992 to 2021, total trade volume between China and Pacific Island Countries (PICs) having diplomatic relations with China grew from $153 million to $5.3 billion, registering an average annual increase of 13% and expanding by over 30 times in 30 years. Similarly, by the end of 2021, China’s direct investment in PICs having diplomatic relations with China had reached $2.72 billion," says Camilleri.
The competition between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other will, if anything, gather pace and intensity in the years to come, the professor says, adding that Beijing's advantage is that "it comes to the table with a much bigger checkbook, and greater opportunities for trade and investment, especially in infrastructure projects."
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