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Tides are changing: China, naval bases, and the Pacific Islands

Updated: Mar 19, 2023


Historically considered the “the backyard” of Australia, New Zealand and the United States, the Pacific regions of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia have recently sparked new international interest. These regions contain multiple small island nations, states, and territories that bear the markings of troubled colonial pasts, civil unrests, and economic potentials. The islands’ territories, in fact, are rich in natural resources, but they remain underdeveloped. They rely on maritime trade to acquire advanced goods, especially from the aforementioned Western nations. Over the past two decades, other Asian countries such as the Philippines have increasingly invested within the region. However, a third player, China, has been setting off alarm bells. Following the leaking of an agreement between the Solomon Islands and China, it has become clear that the latter has intentions of providing military and policing support to the growingly unpopular pacific government. This has stoked concerns in both Canberra and Wellington that China is attempting to increase its military presence in the region. Which begs the question, why? Whereas the Pacific Islands remain outside the geographic focus of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, previous engagement with countries such as Equatorial Guinea indicates that China may be planning to expand its sphere of influence in the region.

One Belt, One Road

Following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] spent almost half a century reengineering China from a feudalistic society to one of the most technologically developed countries in the world; at an enormous cost to human life. Within the same period China also successfully exported its communist vision to countries departing from their colonial progenitors; often through the supplementation of economic and military support.

The success of these internal and external policies allowed for the creation of pro-Chinese states in Africa and Asia, such as communist Vietnam, Tanzania, and Angola. However, it was established in the early 2000s that China’s rapid growth put its population in a precarious situation. Having almost tripled its population in a single generation, it was forecasted that China’s domestic resources would not be able to satiate its population's demands in the near future. In addition, while many pro-western and neutral countries across all continents of the globe became good trading partners with China in the years after the end of the Cold War, they also came to distrust its government due to their prior escapades across the developing world.

This status quo led the CCP to hold a forum in 2006 to explore the viability of a single strategy that would promote both Chinese economic and political interests abroad. Fast forward to 2013 and this strategy became what is known as the concurrently running “One Belt, One Road initiative”, otherwise known as the BRI.

The strategy involves an estimated four to eight trillion dollars worth of investments by Chinese over the next four decades into countries that are roughly demarcated by the Silk Road, which operated from the 1st century BCE to the 15th century AD [the Road]. Additionally, a new maritime route was also designated in 2013 which was deemed favorable for Chinese cargo shipping [the Belt].

On paper, host nations receive large sums of money to build ports, roads, electricity power grids, and all the factories involved in the creation of said systems. But unlike many aid packages from the West, these loans on paper are meant to come with zero strings attached. This has led the BRI to receive the accolade of “Benign, Win-Win Cooperation”, but this is seldom the case.

Security Concerns with the BRI

Under Chinese law, all private Chinese commercial entities are obliged to cooperate with the CCP, its military, and its security services. This means that all the digital and physical infrastructure created with Chinese money/companies is accessible by the Chinese state and is built to military standards; both domestically and abroad. But while this “totalitarian” policy has led to disastrous human rights issues within China, a benefit felt abroad from said strategy comes in the form of combating the unwillingness of foreign governments to host Chinese military infrastructure. Through providing large loans to governments that are perceived as unlikely to repay them, the Chinese state is effectively able to bend their will into accepting alterations in the security dynamics of their borders.

A recent example of this security overlay to Chinese debt can be seen in Sri Lanka. In 2016, the financially unviable Hambantota International Port was leased to the Chinese-owned company CMP for a 99-year period in exchange for 1.15 billion dollars of loans to the Sri Lankan government. But within 24 months, said government defaulted on its debts to China. This was awfully convenient for the CCP, as due to its “civil-military fusion” the port can service not just tankers and cargo vessels, but Chinese Navy ships as well.

While this has yet to occur, the Chinese government has on paper acquired a replenishment station for its Navy’s patrolling operations in the Bengali bay and the Arabian Sea portion of the Belt route. When factoring in the weakened bargaining position of the Sri Lankan government, if the CCP decides to make a move on said port, there will be little in the way to stop them from carrying out said wishes.

Based on the logic that the Pacific Islands geographically fall outside of the scope of the Belts and Roads initiative would indicate that they are safe from such geopolitical maneuvers. However, the case of Equatorial Guinea highlights the causes for alarm.

Covering the Flanks

Far outside of the reach of either the Belt or the Road, Equatorial Guinea hosts the built port of Bata. Falling in line with the BRI initiative, investment within the country goes much further than the port itself, winding its way through the construction of road networks, telecommunications, and electrical grids. But unlike Hambantota International Port, the Chinese government has voiced its intentions of hosting a Chinese naval base within the confines of the port.

The rationale for this move according to the CCP is that Equatorial Guinea forms part of its “Pan-African” policy. Unveiled in 2021, the Chinese government claims once more “a Partnership of Equals” and “Mutual Support” with participating states within the African continent.

Much like commentators on the Belt and Roads initiative, foreign affairs analysts have highlighted the militaristic inclinations of the policy. In essence, Bata will allow for the Chinese Government to widen the scope of security apparatus around the flanks of its Belts and Roads initiative in the coming years. In relation to the Pacific Islands, the deal between the Solomon Islands and China seems to be following a halfway point between Bata and Hambotana.

The forecast for the Pacific Islands and China

While the Solomon Islands prime minister has publicly stated that his government has no intentions of allowing China to build a military base in the region, the leaked agreement does state that Chinese Warships will be able to dock within the Solomon Islands waters. Although this is not expected to occur in the short term, this move seems to be the beginning of what one could refer to as the beginning of a “pan-pacific” approach to BRI.

What is expected in the coming years is that neighboring countries to the Solomon Islands will be targeted for Sri Lankan-style loans. Evidence has already arisen for such plans when the island of Samoa backed out of a 100 million dollar deal to turn its wharf of Vaiusu Bay into a deep water port. But with corruption rampant within the region, it is highly likely that further attempts in the coming years will be made to create a “friendly port” for the Chinese Navy ships.

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