Too little, too late? Australia is scrambling to revive its Pacific ties as China’s ambition to build a South Pacific fortress appears to be advancing.
Canberra opened embassies in the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia on Tuesday. It’s part of a “Pacific Step-Up” policy designed to counter Beijing’s growing influence in our neighbourhood.
But things aren’t going all that well.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) appears to be about to reactivate a strategic World War II airstrip on a tiny island deep in the heart of the South Pacific.
It’s a move that potentially has huge implications.
Especially as a loose confederation of island nations, the 18-member Pacific Island Forum, collapsed in disarray last year.
At stake is one of the world’s last, and most vast, healthy fishing grounds. But Kiribati’s Kanton atoll, with its two-dozen or so residents and an old airstrip, also sits astride arterial shipping lanes between Australia and the United States.
And it’s not China’s only active project in the area.
“Australia has reacted to the PRC’s growing role with increasing alarm,” says Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific director John Bradford. “The prospect of the region being militarised brings potentially serious consequences.”
Kanton at the crossroads
Beijing’s desire to upgrade the coral atoll airstrip some 3000kms southwest of Hawaii and 4600kms northeast of Brisbane has been known for several years.
But news of any progress on the project has been lacking – until now.
Kiribati opposition member of parliament Tessie Lambourne earlier this week told Reuters she worried a deal had already been done.
“The government hasn’t shared the cost and other details other than it’s a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge,” Ms Lambourne said. “The opposition will be seeking more information from the government.”
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Neither Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, nor Beijing’s foreign ministry has yet publicly responded.
The nation of Kiribati is a collection of 32 coral atolls and islands in the mid-Pacific Ocean. It has just 120,000 citizens living on only 800 square kilometres of land. Yet its exclusive economic zone is one of the biggest in the world – covering more than 3.5 million square kilometres.
It’s a region rich with fish – especially tuna. The waters around Kanton island itself are barred from commercial activity to protect breeding stocks. Only the island’s residents can fish there.
But its central position is another significant asset.
It was first used as an aircraft stopover in 1939 for flying boats travelling between Oceania and the United States. During World War II, an airfield was added to relay bombers and transport aircraft.
“The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,” Reuters quotes one unnamed Pacific government advisor as saying.
Age of empire
“There are compelling strategic reasons drawing Beijing towards the region,” says Mr Bradford. “The PRC’s attention will have been drawn to the route through the South Pacific as an alternative to that through an increasingly contested Southeast Asia for its energy supplies from the Gulf. But this new route would require protection with its own naval presence.”
Rumours of attempts to establish naval facilities on Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands have circulated for the past decade.
It’s a prospect that has Canberra concerned.
The 2016 Defence White Paper warned: “Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood including … Pacific Island countries become a source of threat to Australia.”
The 2020 Defence Update went one step further. It assumed such a base will be built and called for constructing a new Jindalee Over The Horizon radar system to watch Australia’s eastern approaches.
Amid it all looms the spectre of World War II. Blocking the major shipping lanes between North America, Australia and New Zealand was the objective of Japan’s Coral Sea and Guadalcanal campaigns.
“Today, China is moving to achieve control over the vital trans-Pacific sea lines of communication under the guise of assisting with economic development and climate-change adaptation,” Steve Raaymaker writes for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
He sees the move on Kanton as part of a broader Chinese Pacific strategy: A $2 billion fish farm at French Polynesia’s strategic Hao Atoll is industrialising a lagoon “large and deep enough to accommodate an entire naval fleet”.
“Control of the facility at Hao, along with those proposed in Kiribati and elsewhere across the heart of the Pacific, represents a power-projection capability that is orders of magnitude beyond the old ‘three island chains’ construct … and requires an urgent realignment of the strategic response,” he says.
The people of Kiribati have their own concerns.
Rising sea levels are already proving to be a threat. Their low-lying atolls face inundation before the end of the century.
President Maamau has vowed to preserve his island homes for as long as possible. And he’s keen to engage China’s artificial island engineering expertise to do so.
“Maamau’s government will deploy dredgers to suck up vast quantities of sand from lagoon floors and dump it along exposed island coasts, not just for protection but also to build up more land for planting crops,” a 2020 University of the Sunshine Coast analysis reads.
“It’s a bold move, considering China’s sights are set on military and economic expansion across the Pacific region, yet Maamau insists on maintaining Kiribati’s independence.”
Beijing insists it has no military interest in the South Pacific. Instead, its growing presence is a natural consequence of its economic growth.
But not everyone is convinced of its benevolence.
“Many observers point to its hunger for resources, however, and believe its growing military engagement in the Pacific betrays a long-term objective to establish a naval base there – an unthinkable outcome for Australia,” the USC writers warn.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Belt and Road project heavily emphasises acquiring and operating maritime infrastructure. Regional examples include its Port of Darwin facility, its presence on Asua in the Solomon Islands and Luganville in Vanuatu, and a proposed billion-dollar development of a PNG Torres Strait island as a fishing hub.
“There is growing concern that (China) has, or could, use its investments to deny infrastructure access to its rivals,” a US navy policy document warned earlier this year.
Mr Bradford says this is a plausible scenario.
“To date, PRC enterprises have not overtly denied access to others, but they are creating business models that advantage their partners over their commercial competitors.”
Beyond this, Beijing’s “military-civil fusion” policy insists that all overseas facilities it builds must have “dual-use” capability – essentially meaning they must be capable of accommodating China’s military assets.
But, Mr Bradford says, such hefty port investments have so far mainly been used to apply political pressure.
“The PRC has overtly used its geo-economic leverage,” he says, “[such as] its [$8 billion] investments in Piraeus to persuade Greece to weaken EU statements denouncing the PRC’s human rights effort. There are also unconfirmed rumours that the PRC has quietly used its influence to arranged for denial of access to Japanese ships.”
Such behaviour could be a template for what to expect in the South Pacific.
Of sparrows and the dragon
“Australia is right to be concerned about the PRC’s motives and activities in the South Pacific,” Mr Bradford says. “Introducing great power rivalries into the region could destabilise some of the fractious domestic politics at play in some Pacific Island countries … Continued [Chinese] migration will likely lead to deepening resentment among local populations, who believe Chinese migrants are dominating local economies and businesses.”
It’s an unsettling scenario tacitly echoed in Canberra’s move to open more embassies.
“We continue to strengthen our co-operation in areas such as maritime security, infrastructure, climate change and women’s empowerment, as well as our support for the health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting the region’s economic recovery,” a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs reads.
But is this is enough?
“While the Pacific Step-Up signals the importance of the region to Australia, in its current form it will not achieve its objective of forestalling growing PRC influence in the South Pacific,” Michael Wesley argues in China Matters.
“Most Pacific Island leaders refuse to buy into claims from Australia – as well as New Zealand and the US – that the PRC’s growing role represents a threat to the region.”
Beijing is, once again, proving to be its own worst enemy.
Its “wolf warrior” diplomatic behaviour has set South Pacific populations – and some politicians’ – on edge.
“The bullying tactics of PRC diplomats at recent PIF (Pacific Islands Forum) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits have resonated broadly across the region,” Wesley observes.
And there is often a significant difference between Beijing’s words and its actions.
“The PRC’s long-distance fishing fleets, its demands for non-sustainable resources such as hardwood and its status as the world’s largest carbon emitter are attributes that are deeply threatening,” he says.
But the Pacific Islands are tired of talk.
With water levels rising, the need for action is becoming urgent.
“Australia has failed to convince Pacific Island leaders to reduce their co-operation with the PRC, which allows them to balance pressures from Australia and its allies,” Mr Bradford says. “To maintain its influence in the South Pacific, Australia must listen to – and engage genuinely with – the concerns of the region, most pressingly on climate change.”
It’s a message echoed in Raaymaker’s ASPI paper.
“For its own national security, Australia needs to more overtly recognise both the climate change and broader development concerns of Pacific island countries, and tailor its development assistance to address these concerns in a much more meaningful and concrete way.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel