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A New Battle for the Pacific

As it is doing in Southeast Asia, Beijing is looking to build alliances that would undermine America's dominance in the Pacific.


The diplomatic quarter in Majuro, the tiny capital of the Marshall Islands, is not exactly teeming with activity. In fact, only three countries maintain embassies here. Not surprisingly, two of them belong to the now-independent republic's former colonial powers, Japan and the United States. The third, however, is Taiwan's "Embassy of the Republic of China." The Marshall Islands is one of 26 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei.

This puts the Marshall Islands at the centre of an enduring Asian conflict: the struggle on one hand by Taipei to attract and retain diplomatic recognition from foreign governments and by Beijing on the other to deny the island its claims to legitimacy. Taipei's efforts to get official diplomatic support for "the Republic of China" always comes with generous offers of aid, something that the impoverished and resource-starved island-countries of the Pacific badly need. Beijing has adopted similar tactics, funding government buildings in Vanuatu and Samoa. It paid for the construction of the venue for last year's South Pacific Games in Suva, the capital of Fiji. None of this is new, though Beijing has increased such spending in recent times.

But there is something bigger going on here. While the attention of the United States is currently focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, China is making inroads into gaining influence in what has long been regarded as America's home turf, the Pacific. Some analysts have even suggested that the ocean is becoming the venue for a new Cold War where the U.S. and China compete for client states and strategic advantage.

China is expanding its influence over the Pacific with the "long-term aim of challenging the United States as the prime power in the Pacific," says Benjamin Reilly, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra. "It can no longer be taken for granted that Oceania will remain a relatively benign 'American Lake'."

Taiwan's interests in the Pacific are clear and relatively narrow. Besides its need for diplomatic recognition, it also has economic interests in the region: Its fishing fleets are some of the largest in the region, operating across the central and western Pacific.

Beijing has sought to counter Taiwan with its own brand of what is known locally as "dollar diplomacy." "Chinese aid disbursements have moved from near zero to [among] the largest in the region in only a few years," Reilly says. "Chinese aid to the Pacific's largest state, Papua New Guinea, is now second only to that of Australia." Reilly notes that China also provides military assistance to the few Pacific countries that maintain forces--Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

China's interest in Tonga proves this point, say Reilly and others. For years, Tonga was Taiwan's staunchest ally in the Pacific. But in 1998, Tonga shifted recognition to Beijing. Its king received a red-carpet welcome in Beijing along with promises of aid. Two deputy chiefs of the Chinese People's Liberation Army have visited Tonga in recent years. Tonga may be tiny--no more than 100,000 people live on 700 square kilometres--but it is strategically located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

According to Mohan Malik, a China analyst at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, Beijing has two major interests in the Pacific: In the short term, he says, it wants to "isolate Taiwan in the international community." But in the medium and longer term, says Malik, the goal is to challenge and eventually displace the U.S. as the guardian and protector of the Pacific. He said that Beijing wants to emerge as a major Pacific-region aid donor and economic partner. "This would undermine U.S. influence in the region and Oceania's special ties with Washington," says Malik.

Malik argues that increased Chinese tourism and emigration are part of Beijing's "economic penetration of Oceania" strategy. In recent years, thousands of Chinese have settled in the Pacific, running grocery stores, restaurants and other small businesses. The numbers aren't significant in a global context, but both Reilly and Malik say that Chinese migration to these Pacific states with their tiny populations has upset traditional ethnic and economic patterns.

According to Reilly, the realization of China's ambition to develop a blue-water navy, which it now lacks, would increase its interest in the Pacific. Now, despite recent developments, the region is not at the top of Beijing's list of security priorities. Taiwan and the Spratly Islands figure much more prominently. But, as Reilly points out, China has seen how Japan and other countries have historically used the Pacific islands in the service of building a Pacific empire. And though there is no evidence that China will seek to expand its influence by waging war, it seems inevitable that its interests in the region will clash with those of the U.S. in the longer term.

China's only major setback in the Pacific was suffered last year, when Kiribati decided to recognize Taipei. "We did not ask them to sever diplomatic relations with Beijing, but as China adheres to the one-China policy, they pulled out of Kiribati immediately," says Chen Lien-gene, Taiwan's ambassador to the neighbouring Marshall Islands. And not only was the Chinese embassy in Kiribati closed, the Chinese also dismantled a satellite-tracking station that it had established in 1997 on Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati. The station was the only one of its kind outside China, and Kiribati, which straddles the Equator, was an ideal place for satellite-tracking.

Defence experts long suspected that China's Tarawa station also monitored American missile tests at nearby Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. "The Kwajalein base is vital for the development of the United States' missile-defence system, which China strongly opposes," says Reilly.

Other observers argue that the satellite dishes at Tarawa were too small for such advanced operations. Des Ball, a professor at the Australian National University and an expert on signals intelligence, says that China's Yuan Wang tracking ships are far more useful for intelligence gathering. "These are packed with all sorts of communications gear," Ball says. He says that one of the tracking ships is permanently stationed in the Pacific; a second pays occasional visits.

Ball, however, says that the loss of the Tarawa station was significant for another reason: It deprived Beijing of a land base in the Pacific, where the movements and activities of the Yuan Wang ships could be coordinated. China is believed to be looking for a new base near the Equator, and of the Pacific countries that recognize Beijing, only Nauru has an equally favourable location. Nauru severed diplomatic relations with Taipei in July 2002 and now recognizes Beijing.

So far, much of this seems to be happening with the tacit approval--or at least the studied ignorance--of Washington. Aside from being preoccupied with its Middle Eastern imbroglio, it is clear how much Washington needs Beijing's support both there and with North Korea. The U.S. has even pulled out diplomats from the Pacific and downgraded its presence there. This, Reilly argues, has created a vacuum that China is taking full advantage of.

According to Malik: "Under the cover of a China-Taiwan contest for diplomatic recognition, Beijing is laying the groundwork for a future contest between the United States and China for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean." For small and near-bankrupt countries like the Marshall Islands, offers of aid may be the key factor determining whether they should recognize Taipei or Beijing. But they may soon find themselves pieces in a much bigger game that increases their strategic significance even more.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, August 05, 2004

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