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China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific explained: how does this implicate Australia?



Asia-Pacific region, credit: Adobe Stock

A superpower super-focused on power 


China’s presence in the Asia-Pacific has granted them influence in the politics of their neighbouring states. To ensure national security, China aims to foster good relationships with surrounding countries. However, many of China’s neighbours have expressed concern over its increased militarisation in the Asia-Pacific region. 


Tensions have heightened between China and Australia, as Australia has now overtaken China in becoming the “leading source of bilateral loans to the Pacific,” according to Lowy Institute data from 2022. While Australia is not exactly threatening China’s position as a global superpower, this still causes strain between the two countries.


China has disrupted peace with Australia, imposing tariffs on Australian exports which resulted in a trade war, as well as neighbouring states in the South China Sea. So how does China maintain their power? The answer lies in Pacific Island countries.


A line of defence, or offence? 


The Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have recently been of interest to China and their regional security. Geopolitics, which is the correlation between geography and international affairs, plays a key role in these decisions. 


Situated between China and the US and Australia, Pacific Island nations hold strategic importance for China. So, what tactics have they used to increase their diplomacy and security? China is increasing aid to develop infrastructure and provide military forces to Pacific Island countries. 


In 2022, China proposed a five-year plan to 10 Pacific Island countries, called The China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision. This draft was claimed to be for “domestic policing purposes”. Unsurprisingly, this was met with contention from not only Australia but some Pacific Island countries as well.


Former President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo wrote in a letter to 21 other Pacific Island countries that he believes the implementation of this plan, and thus “China’s intent to control the region”, would ignite a “cold war” between China and Western states. 


Mr Panuelo highlighted “the risk of Pacific islands being caught in geopolitical conflict as tensions rise between the United States and China over Taiwan”.


Prior to this proposal, the Solomon Islands cemented their diplomatic ties with China, signing a security agreement with China. The fear of an increased Chinese military presence could strain diplomatic ties between Australia, New Zealand and the US, before China has even set foot on Pacific Island soil.


Calculated responses


The end of 2023 saw Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) sign a security pact with a “treaty-like status”, which includes $200 million to support PNG’s national security. While this agreement does not limit PNG from signing other agreements with other countries, it was stated that both nations should aim to prioritise consultations on each other’s security priorities.


However, President of PNG James Marape has maintained that PNG will remain a "friend to all, enemy to none".


In response to this agreement signing, China continues to seek out policing operations in the Pacific. An article published by the ABC on April 21 details China’s deal to grant funding for disaster relief efforts in PNG. This agreement persisted despite PNG’s foreign minister, Justin Tkatchenko, telling Australian officials that PNG “was not pursuing any security agreement with China”. 


In addition to disaster relief funding from China, there were numerous other agreements signed following the bilateral meeting between China and PNG. These agreements related to the export of PNG cocoa and coffee and the sharing of information communication technology. 


Implications upon Australia’s national interest 


Historically, Australia has been a key player in the Asia-Pacific region, providing aid, security and development to Pacific Island countries, especially PNG. Now that China has decided to expand their forces into this region, this move hinders Australia’s ability to foster strong relationships with these countries. 


Most notably, a stronger Chinese military presence could cause further tension amidst the development of the AUKUS submarine deal – a deal between Australia, the US and the UK which provides nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific region.  


The increase in military personnel in this area may lead to a cold war, a fear that Former President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo vocalised in 2022. 


Australia’s close relationship with the US combined with high US-China tensions will not bode well with the current geopolitical climate in the Asia-Pacific.


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