Government and governance, International relations | The Pacific

4 December 2020

The speeches of Pacific leaders at the 75th United Nations General Assembly suggest their nations have divergent interests in regards to the United States and China, Denghua Zhang writes.

As written in a previous article, the Pacific Island leaders’ speeches delivered at the 75th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly earlier this year provide a useful way of understanding the region’s shared concerns. However, many Pacific Island countries (PICs), both individually and in small groupings, also had specific concerns that were not shared throughout the region.

The fast-growing United States (US)–China rivalry in the Pacific was mentioned by the leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands and Palau. This is unsurprising as these three northern PICs are the focus of the US in the region.

Under compacts of free association which grant the US exclusive access to their land, airspace and waterways, the three PICs have considerable strategic importance to the US. But these special arrangements have become a double-edged sword for the PICs in the context of US-China competition. They serve as a solid foundation for the countries to foster cooperation with the US, but hinder their efforts to develop a closer relationship with China.

More on this: China’s COVID-19 diplomacy in the Pacific

While the three PICs are divided in their desire for relationships with China, FSM has sought closer ties. FSM President David Panuelo spent a whole section of his UN speech on the US–China issue, calling for a détente between the two powers.

He warned that the competitive activities of the US and China “potentially threaten to fracture long standing alliances within our Pacific Family, and could become counterproductive to our collective desire for regional solidarity, security, and stability.”

President Panuelo asked PIC leaders and external powers “to remain focused and true to the ‘collective goals’ that UNITE us, and not unilateral interests that may surely DIVIDE us in the long term.”

This position is sensible, as FSM has forged closer security ties with the US and greater economic cooperation with China. As such, it would be difficult for FSM to choose a side.

This decision on alignment has proven less difficult for Marshall Islands and Palau. As both countries have no diplomatic relations with China, siding with the US is a rational option. In his UN speech, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau highlighted his country’s close relations with the US, Japan, Australia, and its southern development partners, excluding China.

Similarly, President David Kabua pledged to deepen Marshall Islands’ security cooperation with democratic partners against “the forceful influence of larger powers,” alluding to China.

He also slammed China implicitly over human rights, saying: “the Marshall Islands is particularly concerned that not all are held to full account for human rights obligations — and systematic violations, including those of the largest powers… we find unacceptable the persistent efforts to rewrite basic human dignity into an alleged ‘win win’ language which devalues individual rights.”

The 2020 UN General Assembly debates provided an opportunity for Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to voice their support, as they do every year. Leaders from Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu applauded the exemplary role Taiwan has played in fighting COVID-19, expressed appreciation for its assistance to the Pacific, and supported its inclusion in the UN system.

More on this: Securing vaccine access in the Pacific

Meanwhile, FSM and China’s new allies in the Pacific — Kiribati and Solomon Islands — stated their appreciation to China for assistance. For example, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare thanked China – and Australia – for building Solomon Islands’ in-country COVID-19 testing capacity.

China–Taiwan and China–US competition are becoming increasingly interrelated. In recent years, the US government has deepened its cooperation with Taiwan. For example, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach visited Taiwan in August and September 2020, respectively, despite strong opposition from China.

US officials have also opposed the decision of Taiwan’s former diplomatic allies such as Solomon Islands to switch their allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. It is likely that the US will provide more open support to Taiwan in consolidating the latter’s diplomatic ties with Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu. In response, China is likely to use its aid and trade programs to pry more PICs away from Taiwan.

Recent developments suggest that US–China geopolitical competition is likely to intensify in the Pacific. In August 2020, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper paid his first ever visit to Palau, a trip to showcase the US’ commitment to strengthened security cooperation with Palau and the wider region. In return, President Remengesau openly invited the US to establish a military base in his country. Negotiations between the US and the three PICs over renewing the economic provisions of the compacts of free association have received substantial support from the US government.

The Trump administration has also increased security cooperation with like-minded traditional powers in the Indo-Pacific region. In Tokyo in early October 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan – known as ‘the Quad’ – and urged the group to guard against the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘exploitation, corruption and coercion’.

All the ministers pledged to step up coordination to safeguard a rules-based Indo-Pacific in order to maintain regional stability. This conference was criticised by the Chinese for ‘forming exclusive cliques… targeting third parties or undermining third parties’ interests’.

The issue of UN Security Council (UNSC) reform was brought up by leaders of FSM, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Samoa, though each used a slightly different tone. Since 2005, Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan have made consistent efforts in their bid as a group for permanent seats at a reformed UNSC and lobbied for support worldwide, including in the Pacific.

In their UN speeches, the prime ministers of Papua New Guinea and Samoa called for the UNSC to increase its transparency, representativeness and accountability, but did not name the countries they will support. Samoa stressed the need to increase the number of both permanent and non-permanent members of the UNSC.

Samoa and Marshall Islands also supported the move to text-based negotiations in a push for progress. In contrast, FSM explicitly supported Japan, Germany, Brazil and India to become the UNSC’s new permanent members.

Brazil, Germany, India and Japan’s renewed campaigns for UNSC reform will be a new focus of competition between these countries and China. China’s main target will still be Japan, and probably India as well. Out of historical and strategic concerns, China has vociferously opposed Japan being granted a permanent seat at the UNSC. As such, it has lobbied actively against Japan in the Pacific. This competition could intensify in the near future.

Looking into the future, PICs will become increasingly entangled in great power competition. While Taiwan’s four allies – Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu – have seemingly thrown their support behind the US and Taiwan, for the other 10 PICs, maintaining a balanced position between traditional partners and China will be a difficult task.

It will involve a number of factors, including historical relations, economic benefits and strategic security. The aforementioned plea by FSM for the US–China détente could be one idea supported by some PICs, but if the US–China rivalry spirals into open confrontations, taking sides may become more difficult to avoid.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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