Partners in the Blue Pacific, established late last month by United States, Australia and three other allies, is seen by analysts – and by Beijing – as the latest in a series of moves to counter China’s drive to expand its diplomatic and military reach in the South Pacific.
The group announced itself in a joint statement on June 24, saying it came together in response to “growing pressure on the rules-based free and open international order Japan, New Zealand and Britain round out the membership.
Australia and the United States have gone on heightened alert over the past year because of China’s effort to expand its influence in the South Pacific, where more than a dozen small and mainly impoverished countries rely on aid and trade from larger nations.
Over the past year, China has shown increasing interest in the region, where it seeks to expand its naval influence in support of long-standing business interests, especially in fishing, experts have told VOA.
Beijing signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April and reached 52 bilateral economic-focused “cooperation outcomes” after its foreign minister visited 17 of the region’s small archipelagic countries in May and June.
“The South Pacific is being rediscovered,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, referring to the impact of Chinese activity. “Now the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Japan are moving into higher gear.”
Washington has exerted influence in the South Pacific for decades through compacts, a type of alliance with countries that were once under U.S. rule. Australia, close to the South Pacific geographically, sees strong relations with the island nations as key to its security, according to a Lowy Institute commentary.
The latest initiative
The group’s formation fits with a broader U.S.-led strategy to pace China’s influence in the South Pacific, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
In September, the United States, Australia and Britain signed a military technology-sharing deal that outraged Beijing. Australia, India, Japan and the United States belong separately to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, to look after their interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Washington already has military bases in Guam and Hawaii. Every two years it holds the RIMPAC military exercises in the Pacific with 25 other countries – excluding China.
The Blue Pacific effort will test how well U.S. allies can work together toward the shared goal of containing Chinese expansion, Huang said. Thayer said the United States is looking to Australia and New Zealand to “carry weight” and “assist” with that process.
Thayer added that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s new Australian government also hopes the effort to enhance the nation’s South Pacific friendships will please voters, who want the administration to take a tough stance on China.
The partners have already given a combined $2.1 billion in development assistance to the South Pacific and are “united” in continuing that aid in line with “transparency” and the permission of recipient countries, the Australian government statement said.
Australia and New Zealand felt they must “take some actions” to show the nearby sea isn’t being changed under Chinese influence, said Huang.
He said the Blue Pacific partnership “is a response to the Chinese for sure, and if they don’t do it now, their future challenge will probably become even bigger.”
Security and development, especially on climate issues, will probably become another cause for the group, said Fabrizio Bozzato, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Ocean Policy Research Institute. Low-lying nations such as Kiribati face dangerously rising sea levels
Government-sponsored media outlets have raised doubts about the Blue Pacific group in China, which touts its assistance to the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted on a ministry website June 3 saying his country’s deals for the region would ensure “mutual respect and common development.”
The Chinese news website Global Times suggested on June 26 the effort could be targeting China and criticized its “absence of concrete plans to promote economic cooperation and the lack of capacity to provide economic investment.”
Chinese officials expressed anger over the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership, or AUKUS, a military technology deal established last year, and said the alliance is a threat to peace Chinese state-owned media have called the Quad dialogue an “exclusive clique targeting China.”
Bozzato said Australia, the United States and their allies may “shape a more appealing identity” in the South Pacific but cannot “expel” China due to the depth of its relations there. “That is impossible, since China has established itself as a partner of many key Pacific island states and of the region as a whole,” he said.