Pacific Islands: Battleground for US–China Interests

December 6, 2021 Updated: December 13, 2021

News Analysis

The rivalry between the United States and China, particularly over Taiwan, is playing out in the Pacific Islands, where countries are forced to choose their alliances.

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago nation in the South Pacific Ocean with a population of 650,000. Violence erupted in the country’s capital of Honiara in November, as protesters forced their way into Parliament and attempted to storm the residence of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, calling for his resignation. In the island’s Chinatown, rioters attacked shops and burnt a police station.

Peace was restored after the arrival of Australian soldiers and police at Sogavare’s request. The country is now threatened by possible food shortages, as many daily necessities are purchased at Chinese shops, which have been destroyed.

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Meg Taylor said the unrest in the Solomon Islands was a response to resource exploitation, economic inequality, and laws that favor foreigners over locals, as well as to the power competition between the United States and China. Specifically, the nation’s citizens were angry that the government had officially shifted its recognition from Taiwan to communist China in 2019.

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Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang inspect honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019. (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

Sogavare blamed Taiwan for interfering in and supporting the riots, but the Taiwanese government has denied any involvement.

In 2019, the day after the Chinese regime convinced the Solomon Islands to switch its recognition from Taiwan to China, the two governments signed a “strategic cooperation agreement,” granting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the lease of the island of Tulagi. A month earlier, a Chinese state-owned company had built a military-type deep-water harbor on the island. The country’s attorney general subsequently ruled that the contract was illegal. This was just one of many concessions to the CCP made by the Solomon Islands’ government that the citizenry opposed.

Currently, only 15 states recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country and therefore don’t have official relations with China. Many of these countries are located in either Latin America or the Pacific Islands, including Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Vatican City/Holy See, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, and Tuvalu. The most recent countries to convert allegiance from Taiwan to China were the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, both in 2019.

Taiwan used to have more support in Latin America, but the CCP was able to convince Panama, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic to change sides. Belize has recently promised its continued support for Taiwan, while Honduras remains a question mark. Honduras’ conservative party supported Taiwan, but the recently elected Xiomara Castro has discussed possibly diverting recognition to China. The CCP is also trying to co-opt Haiti, offering aid money just months after the assassination of the country’s president.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is a regional, intergovernmental political and economic policy organization made up of 18 members, some of which recognize Taiwan, including Nauru, Marshall Islands, Palau, and Tuvalu. Other PIF states maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan—similar to the U.S. position regarding the island—including Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. The group considers Taiwan to be a development partner, with the self-ruled island providing scholarships and other economic aid.

In addition to encouraging Taiwan’s participation in the PIF, the presidents of Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and Palau have urged the U.N. General Assembly to allow Taiwan to participate fully in the U.N. and World Health Organization.

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Taiwanese military honor guards line up in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to welcome President of the Marshall Islands Christopher Loeak in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 27, 2013. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

The CCP has been courting the Pacific Island nations, successfully flipping Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

China’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that recognizing Beijing was in line with the development of the Solomon Islands, the implication being that the financial incentives given by the CCP would benefit the country.

The United States has expressed its commitment to continuing relations with the Solomon Islands, reestablishing the Peace Corps and awarding the country $25 million through the U.S. Agency for International Aid Development. This aid package was a response to a letter of request sent by the Solomon government before it switched allegiances.

The Chinese regime’s influence in the Pacific Islands is a direct threat to U.S. interests. These island nations are small, but they’re of significant strategic importance, and the United States has invested a great deal of money and effort in maintaining good relations with them.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA), whereby the United States provides the country with defense, financial assistance, and access to U.S. social services, as well as visa-free entry to the United States for its citizens. In exchange, the United States controls FSM airspace and waters. China has pumped more than $100 million into infrastructure programs in the islands, in the hopes of breaking up the nation’s association with the United States.

The CCP is interested in FSM for a number of reasons. First, FSM recognizes China, rather than Taiwan. Second, China wants to control the fishing industry across the archipelago. And third, FSM lies very close to U.S. military installations in Guam and the Marshall Islands. Although China would like to establish a People’s Liberation Army naval base in FSM, this would violate the terms of the COFA, which grants the United States exclusive military access to the islands. Thus far, FSM has been unwilling to dissolve its relationship with the United States.

One reason FSM would most likely not increase its engagement with China is that the nearby Marshall Islands and Palau, both of which have a COFA with the United States and Nauru, recognize Taiwan. Additionally, FSM citizens are suspicious of China and don’t want it to replace the United States in the region. The United States considers the relationship with FSM to be so important that all three heads of FSM were invited to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump, while then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Micronesia. These two meetings were both historical firsts.

The COFA agreements will expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and 2024 for Palau. U.S. defense experts worry that the Biden administration has made no effort to engage with the leaders of the two states. Washington has also refused demands for additional compensation for damages done to the Marshall Islands and its people during U.S. atomic testing a generation ago. If the United States doesn’t act, it’s very likely Beijing will make a significant cash offer, and Washington could lose a strategic foothold in the Pacific.

Another wrinkle in U.S.–Pacific relations is that the most populous area of FSM, Chuuk State, has been planning an independence referendum. Originally scheduled for 2021, the referendum has been postponed until 2022. It’s expected that negotiations with the United States, China, and Taiwan will play a role in the island’s decision.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent more than 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Graceffo works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."