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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why China is miles ahead in a Pacific race for influence

Chinese vessels in the harbor in Suva, Fiji, in 2014.

By Damien Cave

Take a walk through the city where China’s foreign minister met on Monday with the leaders of nearly a dozen Pacific Island nations, and China’s imprint is unmistakable.

On one side of Suva, the capital of Fiji, there’s a bridge rebuilt with Chinese loans and unveiled with the country’s prime minister standing beside China’s ambassador. On the other, down Queen Elizabeth Drive, sits Beijing’s hulking new embassy, where the road out front has been fixed by workers in neon vests bearing the name of a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

Looming over it all is Wanguo Friendship Plaza, a skeletal apartment tower built by a Chinese company and meant to be the South Pacific’s tallest building, until Fiji’s government halted construction over safety concerns.

Eight years after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Fiji, offering Pacific Island nations a ride on “China’s express train of development,” Beijing is fully entrenched, its power irrepressible if not always embraced. And that has left the United States playing catch-up in a vital strategic arena.

All over the Pacific, Beijing’s plans have become more ambitious, more visible — and more divisive. China is no longer just probing for opportunities in the island chains that played a critical role in Japan’s strategic planning before World War II. With the Chinese foreign minister halfway through an eight-nation tour of the Pacific Islands, China is seeking to bind the vast region together in agreements for greater access to its land, seas and digital infrastructure, while promising development, scholarships and training in return.

China has already shown how to accomplish “elite capture” in countries with small populations, major development needs and leaders who often silence local news media. And while the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, did not rapidly secure the sweeping proposal he pitched to a region that has long emphasized sovereignty and consensus, he has already collected a number of smaller victories.

Most significant, in the Solomon Islands, Wang signed several new agreements — including a security deal that gives China the power to send security forces to quell unrest or protect Chinese investments, and possibly to build a port for commercial and military use.

Chinese officials deny that’s the plan. But the deal — along with others in the Solomons and Kiribati whose details have not been disclosed — has been made possible because of something else that’s visible and much-discussed in the Pacific: a longstanding lack of American urgency, innovation and resources.

To many observers, the South Pacific today reveals what American decline looks like. Even as U.S. officials have tried to step up their game, they are still far behind, mistaking speeches for impact and interest for influence.

“There’s a lot of talk,” said Sandra Tarte, the head of the government and international affairs department at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. “And not much real substance.”

The absent American

“The United States doesn’t have a significant presence in the Pacific at all,” said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand. “I’m always shocked that in Washington they think they have a significant presence when they just don’t.”

U.S. officials point out that the United States does have big military bases in Guam, along with close ties to countries like the Marshall Islands. And in February, Antony Blinken became the first secretary of state in 36 years to visit Fiji, where he announced that the United States would reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands and engage more on issues like illegal fishing and climate change.

Fiji’s acting prime minister at the time, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, called it an American return, and “a very strong philosophical commitment.” The question is whether it’s enough.

Blinken said last week that “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.” He promised that the United States would “shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open and inclusive international system.”

But that vision in this part of the world has been slow to arrive. The Biden administration took more than a year to release its Indo-Pacific strategy, which is light on specifics and heavy on gauzy phrases (“maximally favorable”) that mostly make sense in clubby gatherings of men in dark suits with flag lapel pins.

Even Republicans and Democrats in Congress who agree that something must be done to counter China have been squabbling for 15 months over a bill to make the United States more competitive — and it still would do little, if anything, for contested places like the Pacific.

The new U.S. Embassy in the Solomons also looks less impressive on closer inspection. Replacing an embassy that closed in the 1990s during the United States’ post-Cold War withdrawal, the outpost will begin in leased office space with two American staff members and five local hires.

Compared to China’s presence in the region, it is nowhere near an equivalent surge. In Fiji, for example, the Chinese Embassy is centrally located and well staffed with officials who speak better English than their predecessors and often appear in local news media.

The U.S. Embassy, by contrast, sits on a hillside far from downtown Suva in a heavily fortified compound. It covers five nations (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu), doesn’t have a full-time ambassador — President Joe Biden nominated someone only last week — and is known for being understaffed.

The Chinese alternative

Many Pacific Island nations do not welcome another age of great-power competition. As Matthew Wale, the opposition leader in the Solomons, said in a recent interview: “We don’t want to be the grass trampled over by the elephants.”

But what they do want, and what China seems better at providing right now, is consistent engagement and capacity building.

While the United States has shown off Coast Guard vessels it is using to police illegal fishing, China is planning to build maritime transportation hubs and high-tech law enforcement centers where Chinese officers can provide expertise and equipment.

While the United States, and its allies Australia and New Zealand, offers humanitarian aid — after the tsunami in Tonga, for instance — China is offering thousands of scholarships for vocational, diplomatic and disaster-response training, along with “cooperation in meteorological observation.”

“China has always maintained that big and small countries are all equals,” Xi, the Chinese leader, said in a written message to Pacific foreign ministers on Monday. “No matter how international circumstances fluctuate, China will always be a good friend.”

Pacific Island nations now find themselves deciding how much to trust or resist that friendship.

Wang has yet to gain support for the most sensitive proposals, including collaboration on customs systems and other digital operations of government. In places like Suva, where Pentecostal churches blare praise music over thunderstorms, Chinese communism may always be eyed warily.

But Monday’s gathering in Suva was Wang’s second meeting with Pacific Island leaders in the past eight months, and more are planned. Clearly, China intends to keep emphasizing that friendship means building stuff and offering promises of prosperity, while expecting news censorship, resource access and security opportunities in exchange.

The pressing question in this part of the world is: What does friendship mean to America?

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