Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote recently that in 20 years time when we look back at controversies such as the war in Iraq they will pale in comparison to other tectonic upheavals as the centre of gravity in world affairs moves to the Asia Pacific. We may not have to wait that long. Foreign policy pundits are already calling a new geopolitical game of power politics and interstate rivalry as a rising China seeks to draft as many countries as possible into its sphere of influence.
While the US has been preoccupied with combating terrorism and spreading democracy in the Middle East, China has been busy cultivating new friends and allies across the Asia Pacific region. The booming Chinese economy has led to a new confidence as China finds its international feet and looks for its place in the diplomatic sun. In stark contrast to Washington’s perceived penchant for unilateralism, Beijing has discovered an enthusiasm for multilateralism that is intended to reassure the region of China’s “peaceful rise” and to portray America’s regional alliances as Cold War relics.
The US has underestimated China. Washington hawks remain focused on China’s potential “hard” power, with many fearing that Chinese military modernisation has progressed further and faster than previously thought. But it is America’s “soft” power - that is, its cultural, economic and diplomatic clout - that China is now challenging. Through a combination of trade, aid and skillful diplomacy, Beijing is laying the foundations for a new regional order with China as the natural leader and the US as the outsider.
In a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Joshua Kurlantzick scores the results of this charm offensive on a zero-sum scale ranging from countries that have clearly chosen Beijing over Washington to those “still married to Washington” but “dating China on the side”. Burma, Laos, Cambodia and even East Timor are included in the former category, while Australia falls into the latter as a “once-staunch US ally” that has begun to “bend to Beijing”. In between lie formerly pro-American countries with one foot in the Chinese camp such as South Korea, where “polls show people fear America more than North Korea”, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, which has been “alienated by the war on terror” and “US ignorance of its economic problems”.
Interestingly, Kurlantzick overlooks the increasing role that China is playing in the more remote sub-region of the southwest Pacific. While he notes that Beijing has been using aid to woo countries such as Samoa and Fiji, this is mentioned only in passing. Apart from Australia and New Zealand, the other states and associated territories that make up the region fall outside the boundaries of his analysis. Yet if, as he maintains, China is biding its time until it can convert its influence in the Asia Pacific into dominance - even military dominance - then the region’s remoter parts may well acquire a new significance.
What confers strategic significance?
Two insights from strategic theory and practice help explain how peripheral and seemingly insignificant regions like the southwest Pacific can sometimes assume an unexpected importance in the affairs of great powers. As Owen Harries argued in a perceptive 1989 paper, Strategy and the Southwest Pacific, we should not overlook the value of non-linear thinking. The most direct route is not always the best one. The longer, less obvious way around is often more effective, for it is less likely to have been anticipated. Paradoxically, the very fact that the southwest Pacific is considered a strategic backwater may make it more attractive as a testing ground for China’s growing power and ability to shore up allegiance in a region hitherto considered an “American lake”.
Related to the indirect approach is the concept of displacement. Rival states may choose to conduct their competition in less sensitive parts of the world where the stakes are lower and there is less risk of tension escalating into major conflict.
Harries was writing in the latter stages of the Cold War when America’s global rival, the Soviet Union, toyed briefly with some island states in an attempt to establish a regional presence. China is not the unlamented Soviet Union. It does not possess the enormous military power the USSR once had and it does not yet have a blue water navy. Nor would a Chinese sphere of influence resemble an exclusive zone of total domination like the Soviet Union had in Eastern Europe. It is more likely to be an area in which smaller and weaker states defer to the interests, views and anticipated reactions of Beijing.
But this would mean the island states in a region would owe their primary allegiance to a country outside the US system of regional alliances - which is precisely why China’s growing presence is a thorny issue. While Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have also become more active in the southwest Pacific, only China has the potential to transform power relationships.
How to win friends and influence people
Over the past decade, China has been quietly planting the seeds of greater influence in the southwest Pacific, establishing a strong diplomatic presence and bestowing no-strings aid and other assistance on cash-strapped island governments. China is now reportedly one of the region’s top three aid donors. The amounts are modest (although the PRC does not publish official figures). Unlike Australia, China does not ask for “good governance” as a precondition.
Most Pacific governments have welcomed China’s overtures, adopting official “look north” (or east) policies and, at times, playing the “China card” in an attempt to remind longstanding - but demanding - aid donors like Australia that they have other options. China has encouraged this by softening up the region’s political elite through so-called visit diplomacy. Over the past few years, the red carpet has been rolled out in Beijing for the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, Tonga, Kiribati and East Timor. “It is now accepted routine”, claimed an article in The National Interest last year, “that the first official overseas visit by a new head of government from the region is made to Beijing, not to Canberra, Washington or Wellington”.
China has also been expanding its diplomatic posts in the region, with embassies in Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga, Micronesia and Kiribati (a “care-taking” mission since 2004, see below). Even the Cook Islands, with a population of just over 21,000, have established diplomatic ties with Beijing. China is now thought to have more diplomats in the region than any other country.