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Politics & Security

Challenge Beijing's Coercive Pacific Islands Aid with Balance of Power

Unlike Japan's inclusive approach, China's aid to the Pacific Islands is exploitative and must be countered to maintain a rules-based order in the region.

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Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa (left) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tingika Elikana of the Cook Islands on February 11 in Suva, Fiji. (©Kyodo)

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa visited the Pacific Island nations in February 2024. The visit is seen as a step forward in a decades-long policy of engagement between Japan and its Oceania partners. Kamikawa met with counterparts from 10 partner countries in the region. She also co-chaired the fifth interim ministerial session of the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM). 

The Pacific Island nations are home to some of the world's most diverse polities and at the same time some of its most homogenous states. Geographically they are also diverse, holding the smallest land mass area and populations. However, their strategic placement makes them special. This group of island nations holds key access points to the most vital sea lines of communication and maritime corridors globally.

Noticeably, the character of geopolitical chess in and around the Pacific Islands is shifting. From mere gunboat diplomacy and mercantilism, China has used its coercive influence and aid policy to recreate the islands' polities.

The vulnerability of the region strategically has thus increased manifold owing to a rampant influx of Chinese activities. Economic prowess has allowed Beijing to lure 10 Pacific Island countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative. It has also lured another five to become members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank headquartered in Beijing.

Japanese Support

While it is encouraging to see Japan picking up the pace and expanding the canvas of its engagement with the Pacific Islands, the past statistics tell another story. The much-talked-about Chinese influence and involvement in the Pacific Islands today became noteworthy only during the decade of the 2000s. The previous phase of the 1980s and 1990s saw Japan as the second-highest donor for the region. 

The relative decline in Japanese aid created space for China to swoop into the available strategic field. Any revisionist power that seeks to undermine the global rules of engagement and law should not be provided with any scope for creating these regional strategic spaces.

Through the PALM format, Japan has increased its engagement with the Pacific Island countries. It holds summit-level meetings every three years. In addition, Japan provides aid and support in building bridges between islands, installing wind turbines, improving wharves, and granting official security assistance. 

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Stark Differences in Approach

In fact, what sets apart Japan's approach to the Pacific Islands from that of China is the former's permissive and non-restrictive mode of cooperation. Tokyo's diplomatic push towards the Oceania region is not aimed at simply countering Beijing's expanding influence across the Pacific Island nations. It is also to enhance policies in furthering the broader goal of reinforcing a rules-based international order regionally.

To put it simply — this contest is spreading throughout the Global South. However, Japan's outreach to the Global South has been received far more positively than that of China. Tokyo's official development assistance program is perceived as non-threatening and has not stirred any major controversy across regions.

Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wu Jianghao at a Belt and Road Initiative tenth anniversary symposium on October 13, 2023. (©Sankei by Yasuto Tanaka)

In 2023, Tokyo announced a $75 billion USD assistance program for countries in the Indo-Pacific and the Global South. Additionally, they pledged $30 billion for African nations. This will be funded by both the public and private sectors over the next three years.

Dr Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes that Japan has the advantage of not carrying any "colonial baggage." This makes its strategic outreach in regions including the Pacific Islands "engaging and inclusive."

Transparent vs Exploitative

Japan involves itself in fostering transparent, open, and long-term communication channels that build trust. Through this, the Japanese model distances itself away from the opaque, conflated, obscure, and dubious Chinese model of engagement. Japan needs to continue building on its adapted strategy by aligning its interests and values with those of its partners in the Global South.

China's expanding reach and influence across the Pacific Islands is part of its larger geopolitical game. That is, the power and ambition to lead the Global South and create a "Sinosphere" of influence. 

However, it is unlikely to be a smooth ride. China's relationship with the Global South at this point is unequal and exploitative. Instances of Beijing's investment and debt-trap-related controversies have begun to play the spoiler in many cases. 

While China shall continue to be a major political and economic force in the Global South, its dominance is not inevitable. It can be challenged and neutralized with a synchronized balance of power.

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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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