Western powers, including the United States, Australia, France, and Britain plan to expand their influence in the Pacific in an effort to contain China’s influence, Reuters revealed in a report Thursday.
Under the new plan, the United States reportedly intends to open new embassies, increase economic aid, and develop closer relations with small Pacific states, including Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Fiji within the next two years.
Britain also plans to open new High Commissions in Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa by the end of May 2019, while meetings with Pacific leaders are being drawn up by French President Emmanuel Macron. The islands are seen as influential because of their voting power at the United Nations, as well as controlling large parts of the resource-rich ocean.
The effort is also an attempt to push back against China’s rising influence in the region. Beijing has provided $1.3 billion in concessionary loans and gifts to the region since 2011, making it the second-largest donor after Australia.
“We are concerned about Chinese practices that lead to unsustainable debt,” a U.S. government source told the agency, adding that the alliance is needed to let the island nations know of other foreign policy alternatives and the consequences of developing too close of a relationship with China.
There is also the question of military influence. China recently gifted the island of Fiji a hydrographic vessel, their first military gift of such kind. Forces from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga will join personnel from Australia, the United States, France, and Japan for military drills off Australia’s coastline.
“There is a sustained push by allies in the region. The Indo-Pacific is a large body of water; a strong navy makes for a strong national defense,” added the U.S. Under Secretary for International Security and Arms Control, Andrea Thompson.
Last month, China’s Foreign Ministry rejected allegations that its economic assistance programs for Pacific nations are an attempt to develop political influence and muscle out regional competitors, especially on the question of Taiwan’s independence.
“As a developing country, China fully understands the special difficulty Pacific island countries face in achieving sustainable development,” the Ministry said in a statement. “China’s aid is aimed at promoting the well-being of the people of the island nations, and strengthening their ability to develop sustainably, without seeking any personal gain, and it is also not aimed at any third party.”
In April, Beijing also dismissed claims that they were planning to build a permanent military base on the island of Vanuatu as “ridiculous” after a report from Australian media indicated that such a plan would place Chinese warships on the country’s doorstep.