China is moving into the South Pacific in major and menacing ways, according to a panel of experts who convened at the Global Taiwan Institute on Dec. 9 to discuss China’s growing presence and influence in the island nations of the South Pacific.
China’s recent efforts in the region have paid off diplomatically.
“The sword is being thrust into the South Pacific,” said retired Navy Capt. James Fanell, a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, specializing in Indo-Asia Pacific security affairs, with an emphasis on the Chinese navy and its operations.
And “unless we do something together with Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Japan, then the Chinese will win.”
Kiribati: A Strategic Target
Kiribati is strategically attractive to China because of the enormity of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), says Fanell, now a fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Switzerland.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an EEZ as a nation’s sovereign rights “for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources” of the water and seabed, extending 200 nautical miles out from its coastline.
It also gives sovereign rights in those waters for the “production of energy from the water, currents, and winds.”
The implications are obvious, Fanell indicated.
“The first thing we will see is the fishing fleets, which will rape all of the tuna out of there. Then, the fishing fleets will have to be protected, and the maritime militia will be out there. Then, the PLA Navy will follow.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that Kiribati has “some of the most productive tuna fishing grounds in the Pacific.”
In addition, Kiribati’s proximity to the equator makes it a desirable location for both spacecraft launches as well as for satellite telemetry.
The Chinese government has been enhancing its space capabilities. China’s Xinhua news outlet reported in April that “China aims to build a scientific research station in the south polar region of the moon … in about 10 years.”
Kiribati already has an abandoned Chinese satellite tracking station that was in operation during its first period of diplomatic relations with Beijing, which ended in 2003.
Fanell, who acted as a consultant to the Australian television show “60 Minutes,” traveled to the region on a fact-finding trip in late October and early November.
He and the production team were told by Kiribati authorities that they “couldn’t leave the hotel” and that the “government was not happy to have them there.” He was allowed out eventually, once it was determined that he wasn’t a member of the press.
Nonetheless, he was shadowed throughout his visit to the island nation.
Fanell remarked that these islands form part of the first island chain of Australia and New Zealand.
“If they don’t want to be isolated, they need to do something about it,” he said.
Trump Administration’s Renewed Commitment
“There is no naïveté left in our government today. This administration gets it,” Fanell said, referring to the Trump administration.
Jennifer Spande, the U.S. State Department’s deputy director for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Island affairs, said the United States has made a commitment to help its allies in the South Pacific be “strong, free, and open.”
That commitment “started with President Donald Trump,” Spande said.
In May, Trump was the first U.S. president to host the presidents of three South Pacific allies at the White House. The presidents of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated State of Micronesia (as a group, often referred to as the freely associated states) also met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The three countries are bound to the United States in a Compact of Free Association (COFA). The COFA enshrines the sovereignty of each nation, and their right to conduct their own relationships with other countries, with caveats.
The United States has “full authority and responsibility for security and defense” of the islands, according to a State Department fact sheet. In return, the islands are “obligated to refrain from taking actions that would be incompatible with these security and defense responsibilities.”
In other words, military relationships with other countries are expressly excluded, at least without U.S. permission.
In return, the United States gives $350 million annually to the islands. In a new effort to expand disaster assistance, digital connectivity, and electrical availability, the United States has made an additional pledge of $100 million to the region, Spande said.
China Expands Presence in Solomon Islands
A group of Chinese companies have taken control of a gold mine on the Solomon Islands’ main island of Guadalcanal two hours from the capital Honiara, Fanell said.
The Gold Ridge mining development project is now controlled by China Railway Construction Co., Chinese-owned Australian developer AXF Group, and Wanguo International Mining, according to Fanell and other sources.
AXF’s website states, “Our largest investment is in the Gold Ridge Project in the Solomon Islands.”
An Aug. 9, 2017, press release on Wanguo’s website confirms the deal, stating, “In an unprecedented partnership arrangement, Gold Ridge Community Investment Ltd (GCIL), which comprise the local landowners, owns 10% of Gold Ridge Mining Limited.”
But AXF will own 90 percent of the company.
China’s efforts to gain more control in the Solomons haven’t been limited to mining.
In Tulagi, in the Solomons’ Central Province, the local government attempted to lease the entire island of Tulagi to China SAM Group for a period of 75 years, Fanell said. The attorney general withdrew approval once the deal was leaked to the press, but left the door open to the Chinese to “reapply in the proper format.”
Time Is of the Essence
Time is running out, however, Fanell warned.
“We can’t wait 10 years,” Fanell continued. “The Chinese are moving.”