If anything demonstrates the interconnectedness of the 21st-century world, it is how a decision made in the Solomon Islands, population 650,000, in the remote South Pacific, can affect the behaviour of powerful countries on the other side of the globe. That, in a way, is exactly what happened last week when Nato leaders met in London. Top of their agenda was Donald Trump’s demand that Europe pay more for its defence. But why is the US so exercised about so-called “burden-sharing”? In part because, these days, it is looking west, not east.
The US has identified China, not Russia, as the biggest strategic, economic and potential military rival to its global leadership. Barack Obama, who was dubbed the “Pacific president”, formalised this shift with his 2011 “pivot to Asia”, which prioritised the region.
But the Solomons’ decision to throw in its lot with China, by accepting large-scale investment and cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan, is further evidence that the US rebalancing act is failing. It is losing the battle for power and influence in the Pacific as well as Europe.
Part of the reason is Trump himself. His America First outlook, by encouraging international disengagement, has created political vacuums that China is filling, not only in the South Pacific but all around the region, from Pakistan to the Philippines. Some minnows, such as Palau, push back – but they are a minority.
While Trump was busy withdrawing from the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, Beijing has been busy building up trade and investment ties through its global Belt & Road Initiative.
Kiribati is another island nation that recently switched sides on Taiwan (which China regards as a renegade province). There has been speculation, meanwhile, that China plans to build a permanent regional military base. Vanuatu was mentioned as one possible location, though this was denied. Now Tulagi in the Solomons is in the frame.
Worried about the defensive implications of China’s rise, the US and Australia said last year they would develop a joint naval base on Manus island in Papua New Guinea. The US has urged its regional allies, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore, to up their defence spending.
Belatedly recognising the historical neglect of its small Pacific neighbours, Australia has also announced overseas aid packages, including funds to combat climate change – although total aid spending as a proportion of national income is at its lowest level ever.
In contrast to the piecemeal approach of the US and its allies, Chinese policy appears focused and single-minded. Like the Dutch, the British and the Japanese in the heyday of their imperial expansion, Beijing is on a mission. Its aim: global superpower status.
Defence analyst Hugh White warned recently that Australia – and, by extension, the US and New Zealand – would have to abandon any idea of preserving a South Pacific sphere of influence, because China was simply too powerful. “It might turn out that the more we try and fail to exclude China from the South Pacific, the less influence we will have there,” White wrote.
More explicit forms of Chinese expansionism under the leadership of its bullish president, Xi Jinping, are raising tensions across the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan has accused China of trying to unfairly influence its national elections next month in a bid to unseat President Tsai Ing-wen, a fierce critic of Beijing.
Xi has suggested Taiwan return to the fold by adopting a Hong-Kong style “one country, two systems” arrangement. But harsh measures taken against Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, and Xi’s mass repression of Chinese Muslim minorities, have lately rendered that idea distinctly unappealing.
Chinese construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, in the disputed South China Sea in a photo taken in 2017.
Meanwhile, the East China Sea, including the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea stretching south towards the Philippines and Indonesia, have become the setting for increasingly dangerous naval confrontations between China and western navies, including the Royal Navy, intent on maintaining freedom of navigation.
China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea that are used as military bases and missile launchpads. It is in open dispute with several neighbours over contested reefs and sea areas which Beijing claims are its sovereign territory.
South Pacific island leaders say they welcome investment and assistance from any quarter, and are not taking sides. But like it or not, they are caught up in a global power struggle over which they have little control.