Context: China’s growing footprint in the Pacific Islands
- The Foreign Minister of China, is currently on an eight-day visit to ten Pacific Island Countries (PICs), and has co-hosted with Fiji the Second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting
- During the meeting, China’s effort to push through a comprehensive framework deal failed to gain consensus among the PICs.
- Though this has raised regional concerns about China’s growing footprint in the Pacific islands, it has also been seen as a demonstration of China’s limitations in the region.
What is the strategic significance of the PICs?
- The Pacific Island Countries are a cluster of 14 states which are located largely in the tropical zone of the Pacific Ocean
- They include Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
- They are divided on the basis of physical and human geography into three distinct parts — Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.
- Though they are some of the smallest and least populated states, they have some of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the world.
- Large EEZs translate into huge economic potential due to the possibility of utilising the wealth of fisheries, energy, minerals and other marine resources present in such zones.
- Hence, they prefer to be identified as Big Ocean States, rather than Small Island States.
- The major powers of the colonial era competed with each other to gain control over these strategic territories.
- The Pacific islands also acted as one of the major theatres of conflict during the Second World War between imperial Japan and the U.S
- The 14 PICs, bound together by shared economic and security concerns, account for as many number of votes in the United Nations, and act as a potential vote bank for major powers to mobilise international opinion.
What does China seek to achieve from the PICs and how?
- The PICs lie in the natural line of expansion of China’s maritime interest and naval power.
- The PICs are located geo strategically in what is referred to by China as its ‘Far Seas’, the control of which will make China an effective Blue Water capable Navy — an essential prerequisite for becoming a superpower.
- At a time when the Quad has emerged as a major force in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China, the need to influence the PICs have become an even more pressing matter for China.
- The Taiwan factor plays a major role in China’s Pacific calculus – Wooing the PICs away from the West and Taiwan will therefore make the goal of Taiwan’s reunification easier for China.
- A zero-sum game has been underway in the past few decades in the Pacific between China and Taiwan in terms of gaining diplomatic recognition.
What are the implications of China’s latest move?
- China has increasingly started talking about security cooperation in addition to its economic diplomacy towards the PICs.
- Recently, China signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands, which raised regional concerns.
- The recent documents rejected by PICs gives a broad proposal about co-operation in the political, security, economic and strategic areas and outlines the more specific details of co-operation in the identified areas.
The intensification of China’s diplomacy towards the Pacific Islands have made the powers who have traditionally controlled the regional dynamics like the U.S. and Australia more cautious.
The U.S. has started revisiting its diplomatic priority for the region ever since the China-Solomon Islands deal.
Australia has sent its new Foreign Secretary to the islands for revitalising ties, with promises of due priority and assistance to the PICs
Source: The Hindu