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August 2017
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Peace and Security

Pacific Island Nations Eye China's Rise

Tokyo, Japan - China’s insatiable appetite for energy and natural resources, and its desire to secure the sea lanes through which such resources are transported, are propelling the country’s outreach to even the smallest of the Pacific Islands, leaders from the island nations heard last week at a convention in Tokyo.

Also, China’s determination to undermine Taiwan’s influence in the South Pacific is prompting generous assistance in infrastructure projects, such as building sports complexes in Fiji and Kiribati, and providing cargo ships to Vanuatu.

Representatives from 22 island nations gathered in Tokyo at the Asia-Pacific Island Nations Summit from March 19-23 to discuss ways of partnering to address their common vulnerabilities. They included tiny islands like Niue -- 100 square miles in area, with a population of around 2,100 -- Vanuatu, Kiribati and Palau, as well as their larger neighbors, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and the host country, Japan.

Sponsored by the Universal Peace Federation, the conference explored the viability of a closer alliance between island nations to protect their natural resources and cultural heritage while promoting sustainable development.

High on the list of concerns was the withdrawal from the islands of interest and investment from their traditional powerful allies -- the United States, Australia and New Zealand -- while China is rushing in to fill the void with offers of aid and trade.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will arrive in Fiji next week, where the first China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum will open on April 5. Heads of state of six island nations will travel to Fiji to meet Wen, who is bringing along more than 200 Chinese businessmen whose interests include fishing, agriculture and tourism.

China offered the Fiji government $1.7 million to sponsor the forum, and the country has received up to $13 million in grants from China so far this year, the Taipei Times reported Friday, citing a Foreign Ministry official.

“At the end of the day it’s a matter of survival,” said Taito Waradi, President of the Fiji Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who has been involved in preparations for the Chinese visit. “If the United States, Australia and New Zealand are not prepared to offer investment, market access and employment -- and the Chinese are -- political philosophy is not a major consideration.”

China is heavily engaged in fishing in the South Pacific, and is also interested in mineral deposits and forestry resources in some of the larger islands. Also important is protecting the sea lanes through which cargo ships travel from Latin American and Africa, where China has been actively making deals to secure energy and other resources to fuel its voracious economic growth.

China has also actively courted even the smallest islands in an effort to undercut Taiwan’s influence in the region. Among 14 island nations belonging to the regional Pacific Island Forum, other than Australia and New Zealand, six have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, eight with China. Top officials of all eight have been invited to Beijing since 2004.

The United States has only four embassies in the South Pacific islands, excluding Australia and New Zealand, plus two online “virtual embassies.”

”China is the most active foreign government in the Seychelles,” said James Mancham, founding president of the island nation in the Indian Ocean, which lies on the sea route between Africa and China. “The Americans have a short-term policy. The Chinese have continuity, strategy and their own plan…they attach great importance to the maritime route.”

Islands are also of immense value in times of military conflict, Mancham pointed out, serving as “unsinkable aircraft carriers” and supply bases.

It is Beijing’s military intentions that most worry Japan as it warily watches China’s growing influence in the Pacific. China has the world’s largest army, with 2.3 million personnel. The country’s official defense budget is set to rise 14.7 percent, to more than $35 billion this year. U.S. and Japanese defense officials suspect the actual expenditure is much higher.

“It’s important for China to abandon its China-centric thought, that China is the center of the world, to maintain peace in this region,” said Dr. Tatsuo Sato, chairman of the Cabinet Committee in Japan’s House of Representatives. “It’s important for China to make its defense budget more transparent, otherwise China will raise the suspicions of the island nations.”

A meeting in Sydney earlier this month between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who discussed China’s military build-up, sent alarm bells ringing throughout the islands, conference participants said.

Although in public statements the three said China had a constructive role to play in the Asia-Pacific region, their shared concern about Beijing’s “opaque” military budget was clear.

Dr. Vincent Siew, former premier of Taiwan, said that China recognizes the attention its economic growth and military build-up have attracted, and its “peaceful rise” policy is designed to allay fears of hegemonic intentions.

“The suspicion is still there, however,” he said. “China is competing with the United States, but the U.S. is pre-occupied in the Middle East and not paying much attention to Asia. If you look at the U.S. presence 20 years ago and now, you have the impression that America is losing influence and interest in the region.”

Conference participants agreed that collective and cooperative action was in their best interest in dealing with their larger neighbors, both in protecting their resources and in developing opportunities.

Among ideas put forth was that of imposing a tax on cruise ships that visit the islands, negatively impacting the environment while barely benefiting the economy. Rules on protecting ocean resources, including fish, should also be consistent, they suggested.

“The islands should join as one group,” said George Varughese, councilor at the Sydney University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. “They should be vigilant and not go into an open market situation. Once the economy is in (foreign) hands, they are in control.”

The islands will always be vulnerable, to the whims of nature, like the 2004 tsunami that swept away whole villages; to human carelessness, like the global warming that creates rising seas threatening to overflow small islands; to human greed, like the depletion of forestry and fish resources.

“We live where we can see the sunrise and sunset, and contemplate the moon. We are not poor, we are rich,” Mancham commented. “We pray to God that the only oil we ever discover on our islands is coconut oil. The day we discover the real thing our independence is over.”

Courtesy of United Press International

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