Western countries reportedly want to use cash and soft power to fend off Chinese influence in the Pacific

  • Western countries and their partners in the Pacific and Indian oceans are increasingly concerned about Chinese influence in the region.
  • Now the Five Eye countries are reportedly starting an effort to counter it through aid and diplomatic outreach.

The US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand want to use economic initiatives and other elements of soft power to counter growing Chinese influence in Asia and Oceania, according to an Asia Times report.

Leaders from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – which, along with the US, make up the Five Eyes defence partnership – have reportedly agreed to expand aid, trade, and diplomatic relationships in the region in response to Beijing’s inroads there, which includes aid and investment in infrastructure projects.

China’s growing economic relationships – many of which come as part of its expansive One Belt One Road initiative – are a source of concern for Western countries and others in the Asia-Pacific region.

India, for example, has expressed concern with Chinese partnerships with countries like Pakistan, the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka.

China has lavished aid on the town of Gwadar, Pakistan, the site of a commercial deep-water port that the US and India worry could one day host Chinese naval ships. Earlier this year, tensions between New Delhi and Beijing briefly rose over the Maldives, where the pro-China government’s declaration of emergency spurred calls from the opposition for Indian intervention.

Sri Lanka has taken on huge debts to China but is struggling to pay them back. The government’s decision to lease the port of Hambantota and land around it to Beijing in December raised ire in India, which fears it could be used by China to establish a military presence in the Indian Ocean. In what may have been a counter to China’s Hambantota lease, India signed a 40-year lease for a virtually unused airport nearby.

Similar dynamics have played out in the Pacific. While many of the countries there are tiny and sparsely populated, their vast exclusive economic zones cover much of the Pacific.

After a 2006 coup in Fiji, which prompted sanctions from Australia and New Zealand, Beijing became a key source of aid for Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. China also funded a fish-canning facility in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbour in the region, on the condition Chinese companies did the construction. A Chinese firm also got permission and concessions to set up a fish farm in French Polynesia, after Beijing gave aid and subsidies to the government there. (Chinese fishing vessels trawling the region are also suspected of gathering intelligence.)

More recently, Australian media reported that the governments of China and Vanuatu had discussed establishing a Chinese military presence in the latter country, an island nation northeast of Australia.

While China has made investments in Vanuatu, Australian media said there had been no formal agreements, and both governments denied such talks had taken place. (Other observers suggested Vanuatu and others in the region may be trying to play the West and China off each other.)

At present, China has only one military base abroad, located in Djibouti. While Beijing refers to it as a “logistics facility,” it is still cause for concern. A senior US military official said it posed “very significant operational security concerns.”

The Vanuatu report, and others like it, fuel concerns China is trying to leverage financial ties for more advantageous positions in the region.

This effort has been called “debt-trap diplomacy.” US Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer has described it as “weaponizing capital.” IMF chief Christine Legarde has cautioned China and countries doing business with it about the potential for mounting debts.

Between 2006 and mid-2016, Beijing committed more than $US1.7 billion in aid to projects in the Pacific.

That is less than the $US9 billion committed by Western countries, led by Australia, over the same period, but aid from Beijing often comes without the transparency and accountability stipulations that accompany Western aid.

The Five Eyes countries’ efforts to counter China in the Pacific will include military surveillance and intelligence gathering operations, according to Asia Times. But it will include soft-power elements, like British Crown Prince Charles’ visit to Vanuatu in early April. UK officials have also said their government would ramp up aid, trade, and diplomatic relations with countries in the region.

Japan has increased efforts counter China’s financial outreach by increasing its own international partnerships and investments – including in both Sri Lanka and Vanuatu. Australia and New Zealand have both expressed interest in doing the same, but, according to Asia Times, their decisions to reduce aid commitments may hinder efforts to curry favour with their neighbours.

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