- The US and its partners are increasing efforts to counter China’s spreading influence across the Asia-Pacific.
- That competition has increased in the Solomon Islands, where Australia has blocked an internet-cable project that a Chinese company was picked to build.
- Countries in the region have been drawn to the practicality of Chinese aid, which may be hard for Western countries to top.
The struggle for influence that has seen the US and its partners square off against China across the vast Pacific is intensifying in Guadalcanal, an island not far from Australia where Allied forces won one of their first major land victories against the Japanese in World War II.
China has spread money around the Pacific for years, and the Solomon Islands, of which Guadalcanal is part, have been no exception. But the island became a locus of efforts to counter Beijing after Chinese technology firm Huawei said in 2017 that it would lay a cable providing high-speed internet between the Solomons and Australia.
Australia said it would withhold connection licenses for the cable project, and this spring Canberra officially said it would build its own cable connecting the country with the Solomons and Papua New Guinea.
The cable project was to be funded by the Asian Development Bank, but after the Solomon Islands announced that Huawei would construct it, the bank withdrew over transparency concerns.
Canberra, which had kept track of the project, intervened at that point, saying the Chinese company’s involvement was “a red line,” James Batley, a former Australian high commissioner to the Solomons, told The New York Times.
Both the US and Australia have stepped up their efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Australian officials warned earlier this year that China and Vanuatu were discussing a Chinese military presence in the latter country, which they worried could give China the ability to outflank the US and coherce Australia. China and Vanuatu both denied the report.
Western officials have also expressed concern about Chinese influence in New Zealand, which is part of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership with the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Domestic concern about Chinese influence has also grown in Australia – especially in Darwin, a hub for US military operations.
The US has allotted more than $US350 million in aid to island countries in the Pacific specifically. Most of that goes to support law enforcement, help manage fisheries, and or other kinds of assistance. Australia’s financial aid to Pacific islands jumped 18% this year, rising to the equivalent of $US960 million.
Much of the infrastructure on Guadalcanal dates to World War II, when the US wrested the island away from Japan between 1942 and 1943 in order protect its links to Australia and start an advance into the Central Pacific.
Recent development and investment on the island has come from Chinese immigrants or is owned by someone in China. The Chinese government has also support projects on the island. The extent of that influence worries some there, many of whom fear Chinese wealth will stoke corruption.
Anthony Veke, the premier of Guadalcanal Province, told The Times he would like to see a new road around the island as well as upgrades to its international airport, which is based on Henderson Field, an airstrip that US Marines fought to capture from the Japanese.
A proposal to build an airport and wharf complex on Guadalcanal to support tourism also has the tentative backing of a Chinese state-run construction company, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Veke is reportedly helping handle the proposal, which could be worth up $US1 billion.
Efforts by the US and its partners to replace the aid China is offering are likely to run up against longstanding dissatisfaction about the type of assistance they have offered and the limitations they have put on it.
Aid from the US and Australia has been focused on institutional development assistance, often through law enforcement, as well as free-trade agreements – while China has focused its support on tangible projects, like infrastructure.
“There’s no doubt that the emphasis on infrastructure and physical connectivity, which is somewhat different from the emphasis that the Bretton Woods institutions, like the IMF and the World Bank, take on sustainable development … is incredibly popular,” Herve Lemahieu, director of the Asian Power and Diplomacy Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said in a May interview.
“The Chinese seem to be much more practical in terms of rolling out infrastructure and physical connectivity and then letting the integration evolve on that basis, rather than by elaborate free-trade agreements,” Lemahieu added. “It’s a different way of operating in Asia, and it seems to be fairly successful so far.”
Veke, who has made numerous trips to China to court investment, echoed that sentiment.
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