As early as last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on an unprecedented 10-day tour with a delegation of 20 to 10 Pacific island countries with which the People’s Republic has diplomatic ties.
The tour, which ends this week, includes: Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Niue and Federated States of Micronesia.
The states not visited – Tuvalu, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Nauru – maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
During the tour, the Minister met with his counterparts in a virtual joint meeting. His first such meeting with the group of foreign ministers took place in October last year. China is deploying considerable foreign policy energy in the region.
The foreign ministers of the world powers rarely undertake such long tours in the lesser powers. What does Minister Wang’s mission suggest about China’s geopolitical and geoeconomic ambitions in the Pacific and globally?
What does it bode for other regions, including small island developing states in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas?
China is an increasingly confident world power competing globally with the United States and regionally with powers like Australia in the Pacific. The rivalry between the world’s two greatest powers will continue to grow, with other countries having to carefully negotiate their relationships and interests with the two.
Both America and China have international and domestic strengths and weaknesses that will strengthen and delineate their reach and appeal depending on the regions and countries in which their rivalry will be played out over the coming decades.
The great powers have always sought to protect their land and sea borders and to project their power in their regions. The notion of American political elites that it is legitimate for the United States to project its power but that China should limit its power projection is arrogant and ahistorical.
Presenting the US-China rivalry solely or primarily as a simple competition between democracy and autocracy is simplistic. Nation states have always had to negotiate relationships with larger powers, most recently during the Cold War and the intense superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Even today, with the Russian Federation being a lesser power, countries like India, South Africa and other African states, Israel and other countries, had to consider certain national interests during the war in Ukraine.
Moreover, in the coming decades, how will India project its regional power and interests beyond the subcontinent? It should be noted that India will overtake China in terms of population size as the latter faces demographic challenges due to an aging population and lower birth rate.
Global power is not measured by military hardware alone, although such power should not be underestimated, as evidenced by the war in Ukraine. The United States remains the world’s leading power on many fronts, and will likely remain so for some time.
Yet economics and soft power will continue to play an important role in geopolitics. India sent vaccines to the Caribbean and the Bahamas before the United States. The fellow Commonwealth country also responded with assistance after Hurricane Dorian.
Although small in terms of land mass and population, Pacific island states have vast maritime areas and resources, making them attractive partners for China, Australia and the United States.
States are of particular geographic importance to a China seeking to expand its security and military reach in the Pacific, just as the United States has historically considered Latin America and the Caribbean in its “backyard,” a term which the region has bristled for centuries.
As early as 1815, US President John Adams disdainfully declared: “The people of South America are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all the Roman Catholics in Christendom – [attempts to establish democracy in the region] have always seemed to me as absurd as would be similar plans to establish democracies among birds, beasts and fish.
Few American presidents and foreign policy elites in the executive and congressional branches have had an enlightened foreign policy toward the Caribbean and Latin America, which economic, political, and military elites in the United States viewed primarily with a racist and greedy intent and as security buffers.
Brutal ignorance and military interventions in the region have often soured relations with states in the Americas, including bloody interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
With China gaining enormous economic influence in the Americas, the United States will have to contend with the scope and ambition of the former. China has become the largest trading partner “for South America collectively (and for all of Latin America if Mexico is excluded)”.
China has also invested heavily in the Caribbean, with a strong diplomatic presence and economic investments in infrastructure and other areas, while the United States sometimes seems to take the region for granted.
When an ambassador post becomes vacant, China quickly appoints new ambassadors to Caribbean capitals. Due to the lengthy process of appointing ambassadors to the United States, countries like the Bahamas have not had a U.S. ambassador in years.
China built a new embassy in the Bahamas years ago, with the United States finally catching up with its new large complex in downtown Nassau.
Some observers often view the United States as primarily interested in a security agenda with the Bahamas, and less interested in promoting infrastructure and economic investment, for which we have had, at critical times, to turn to China for a funding.
While China has a long-term foreign policy and economic relationship vision for the Caribbean, the United States often appears hazy, lacking for decades a vision for the region’s small island developing states.
US Vice President Kamala Harris has traveled to various Central American states to promote new economic partnerships and investments. Concerned about the violence in the region and the influx of immigrants, the United States is working to stimulate various Central American economies.
Why hasn’t the United States developed a somewhat similar approach to the Caribbean, which would be happy to receive more than American tourists? The Caribbean often seems like an afterthought and subject to the vagaries of American domestic politics and the interests of congressional ideologues.
During his first year in office, Joe Biden sought to overhaul the historic relationship between the American superpower and the region. It will host the 2022 American Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles from June 6-10.
Biden said of the region, “It’s not America’s backyard, anything south of the Mexican border is America’s front yard. And we are equal people. We don’t dictate what happens in any other part of this – or this continent or the South American continent.
This is good rhetoric but not very convincing. In a Foreign Exchange article, titled “America’s Front Yard,” historian and associate professor at Arizona State University, Alex Aviña offers, “Of course, the crux of the matter remains even with the so-called metaphorical upgrade. Back -court or forecourt, Latin America remains submissive to the American “owner” who imagines his chauvinistic regional interests as shared universal values; an owner who tends to pay close attention to the perceived “infiltration” of forces threatening exteriors…
“The implication, especially when contextualized with years of ‘New Cold War with China’ rhetoric, is that the East Asian country is encroaching on an exclusive US sphere of influence seen as the legitimate, necessary and properly hierarchical order of things.”
Before he and his party were recently ousted in the Australian general election, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison once referred to the Pacific as Australia’s “backyard”.
The country’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and Asian-born Foreign Minister Penny Wong have pledged to improve Australia’s relations with Pacific island states and with the regional grouping, the Forum of Pacific Islands, composed of 18 members and related to Caricom. in various aspects.
The forum was founded in 1971 and its members include: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic from the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
During the Chinese Foreign Minister’s tour and a few days after his election to the new Australian government, Wong flew to Suva, the capital of Fiji, to meet Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who said he had a ” wonderful encounter” with Wong.
Mr. Bainimarama met the foreign ministers of China and Australia the same week. He and the other leaders of the Pacific Islands want good relations with all the major powers.
There is considerable diversity among island states, including in how they approach their national interests. But they share common threats.
David Panuelo is President of the Federated States of Micronesia, with a small population of around 100,000. The Western Pacific country has four states, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae, comprising 607 islands, with a combined land area of 271 square miles.
President Panuelo has warned his fellow regional leaders that their main interests are the global climate emergency, which overwhelms their countries; the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the havoc on limited healthcare infrastructure; and the global cost of living crisis, especially for countries heavily dependent on imports.
He insists he does not want his country to be engulfed in geopolitical great-power rivalry as the region faces threats to their existence, primarily from those same powers.
Small island states in the Pacific Islands Forum, like members of Caricom, face similar challenges, even as the United States and China vie for political, economic and security and military influence.
Leaders of small Pacific states are working diligently to build consensus, particularly in response to climate change. They are tired of being taken for granted. They want their national and collective interests to be taken more seriously. They do not simply want to be pawns in a geopolitical struggle between great powers.
What lessons could small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific learn from each other about how to negotiate the changing world order? What is the Bahamas’ long-term strategy for its foreign and diplomatic relations? What should we do to better promote our interests on the world stage and in collaboration with Caricom?