Editorials

China's South Pacific offensive

Taiwan is losing diplomatic allies. Last week the Solomon Islands voted to cut ties with Taipei and recognize China instead; Kiribati has reportedly followed suit. These shifts in recognition are the latest skirmishes in the diplomatic war fought between Taipei and Beijing, a battle that China is winning. Those victories are not having the desired effect in Taiwan, however. President Tsai Ing-wei’s popularity is climbing, the result of Beijing’s hard line against Taiwan and Hong Kong.

China is recognized as the rightful — and only — Chinese government by virtually all countries. Nearly twice as many afforded diplomatic recognition to Taiwan 20 years ago as do now, but Beijing launched a campaign to win their allegiance and convinced nine to cut relations with the island before a government that favored closer ties with Beijing came to power in Taipei. Beijing then declared a truce in the diplomatic war, ostensibly proving that working closely with the mainland and abandoning independence aspirations produced benefits.

When that government lost power in 2016 and Tsai of the independence-oriented Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became president, Beijing resumed the diplomatic offensive. Since Tsai took office, seven countries have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving Taipei with just 15 diplomatic allies, most of them small nations in Central America and the Pacific.

The Solomon’s decision came after a group of officials visited Beijing to assess the benefits of a switch. China offered money — reportedly as much as $500 million for much-needed infrastructure projects. This decision flouts a warning by the country’s central bank that the Solomons cannot absorb additional borrowing if Beijing opened the spigot. The report echoes an International Monetary Fund study that warned governments in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu about debt to China. They can see the results of such borrowing in Sri Lanka, where debt forced the government to provide a Chinese company with a 99-year lease on the country’s largest port.

Beijing’s pressure is not having the desired effect on Taiwan’s politics. Tsai has had a rocky tenure as president, but her popularity has been climbing in recent weeks, mostly because her defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty has assumed new significance in light of Beijing’s heavy-handed behavior in Hong Kong. Violence and suppression of democratic aspirations there validates Tsai and the DPP’s criticism of China. The diplomatic war confirms their arguments, so that the prospect of Taiwan’s international isolation ironically has raised its diplomatic profile. Thus, even as official recognition of the island is shrinking, it is winning hearts and minds and forging a thicker weave of contacts with the rest of the world.

Yet even if Beijing’s efforts are backfiring, the diplomatic switch is not without consequence. China’s inroads into the South Pacific have geopolitical significance, beyond the mustering of more supportive voices in international forums. The region is rich in mineral and natural resources. It is strategically located, with numerous airfields and deepwater ports. It straddles sea lines of communication between Australia and the United States and Japan; Japan gets 70 percent and 60 percent of its coal and iron ore imports, respectively, from Australia. Canberra is especially concerned about the prospect of Chinese military facilities in the area; reports of a port in Vanuatu alarmed Canberra. And a regional presence allows surveillance of military activities by other powers, including the U.S.

China’s largesse has prompted Japan, along with Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., to step up their regional engagement. The Japanese government produced a report on the South Pacific this spring that highlighted its goal of “maintaining and promoting environments for realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific” and “ensuring the stability and safety of the region.” Japan’s commitment is also reflected in the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting (PALM) process, the eighth of which was held last year. The declaration from that summit affirmed, among other things, a determination to “maintain stability through rules-based order” along with a commitment to respect “sovereignty, rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.”

According to authoritative analysis by the Lowy Institute, Japan was in 2017 (the last year for which all data is available) the region’s third-largest donor, trailing Australia and New Zealand but besting China, spending over $187 million on 182 projects. China is stepping up engagement and pushing Japan and others to do the same. The most important lesson of recent years, however, is that countries engaging the South Pacific must do so to genuinely help those nations. They must not use them as mere instruments of their own national interests. That realization will not ease the anger and disappointment in Taipei, but it is an important reminder nonetheless.