China goes head-to-head with Biden in the South Pacific

Foreign Affairs

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced plans to visit eight Pacific Island nations this week, matching — or perhaps greatly outdoing — Biden’s recently unveiled economic and security plans for the region.

Aerial view of the World War II shipwreck of a Japanese transport ship (Kinugawa Maru) that lies just off a beach on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon islands. Gilly Tanabose via Unsplash.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 will visit (in Chinese) eight countries in the Pacific this week, as Beijing seeks to strengthen its engagement in the region: Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor. He will also conduct video meeting with leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Wang Yi’s stop in the Solomon Islands comes just weeks after Beijing tried to assuage Western security fears over a security pact signed between China and the South Pacific nation in April.

  • Officials from the United States and Australia paid a visit to the Solomons and denounced the pact after rumors of the deal leaked in April.
  • Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare stressed in a statement today that his government “welcomes all high-level visits from key development partners” and will always stand true to its policy of “friends to all and enemies to none.”
  • Wang’s trip comes just a few months before the 80th anniversary of the World War II battle for Guadalcanal, which as Patricia O’Brian recently wrote for CSIS, “underscores the singular importance of the Solomon Islands to secure Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea…the emerging nation of Bougainville…New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and the region beyond the Solomon Islands’ nearest neighbors.”

Though Beijing has security deals with other countries in the region, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea, some have said the pact with the Solomons has more far-reaching consequences and points to Beijing’s larger ambitions.

  • “Wang Yi will be seeking to strengthen ties with the Pacific and counter U.S. and Australian efforts to make inroads at China’s expense. He will sign the pact with the Solomons and likely announce another accord with [the tiny Pacific Island nation] of Kiribati,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.

Since 2006, China’s activity in the Pacific region has been “steadily and significantly scaling up,” Jonathan Pryke reported for the Brookings Institute in 2020: China’s direct investment in Pacific Island countries rose from $900 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion in 2018, a 400% increase.

  • Besides Papua New Guinea, China has overtaken Australia in two-way trade with Pacific Island nations since 2013.
  • China is also now the Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner: As of 2020, China accounted for 64.4% of exports and 34.4% imports, compared with Australia’s 1.05% of exports and 13.5% of imports.
  • China and members of the Quad both donated millions in funds and tens of thousands of vaccines to Pacific Island nations in the fight against COVID, including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Kiribati.

China news, weekly.

Sign up for The China Project’s weekly newsletter, our free roundup of the most important China stories.

Big infrastructure projects are also underway: While Australia still remains the dominant source of aid in the Pacific Island region, “the way in which [Beijing] delivers its aid — large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans — makes these projects stand out,” notes Pyrke.

  • A Chinese-backed plan to revive an old World War II airstrip in Kiribati, about 1,800 miles southwest of Hawaii, for civilian use was announced earlier this month, Reuters reports.
  • Vanuatu recently signed a contract with China for the construction of a new airport runway extension for larger aircraft and for humanitarian aid deliveries, per the Financial Times.

While diplomatic ties in the region have gotten stronger:

  • China and the Solomons both condemned Western backlash over the security pact as “insulting” and disrespectful to the Solomons’ sovereign decision-making.
  • The Solomon Islands and Kiribati were the latest to switch their ties from Taipei to Beijing in 2019.
  • East Timor’s newly elected president, Jose Ramos-Horta, pledged to forge closer relations with China.

Meanwhile, the Quad — a security group consisting of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia — met in Tokyo on Tuesday and pledged to strengthen its cooperation with Pacific Island countries. Biden also announced the U.S.’s revamped Indo-Pacific strategy yesterday.

Nadya Yeh