China’s growing presence among the islands of the South Pacific worries Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. And some island governments are now pushing back against that presence.
But when it comes to both island governments and many local citizens, the biggest issue at the moment appears not to be geopolitics but the issue of illegal Chinese fishing.
Chinese fishing trawlers have been scooping up tuna fish, a main source of protein for islanders.
For tourists, the South Pacific conjures up visions of “romantic beaches, heritage and culture, world-class diving, and natural wonders,” as an Australian travel agent put it.
But on the less sunny side, the writer Michael Field warned nearly two years ago that “illegal fishing, much of it by China, is costing some of the world’s smallest and poorest nations hundreds of millions of dollars.”
It’s important to keep in mind that in six of the 18 Pacific nations and territories, the GDP per capita comes to only $2,100 to $5,700 a year.
Possible destruction of tuna industry
“Inside esoteric fishing rights conferences it is common knowledge that China’s new and powerful boats could within a decade destroy the $3 billion a year Pacific tuna industry,” Field wrote for The Spinoff Bulletin in New Zealand.
Overfishing of a single species can reduce the size of a fish population to the point where it can no longer reproduce, resulting in what is sometimes referred to as a “crash” in that population.
The congressionally funded U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) said in a report published in mid-June of last year that “tuna is a vital source of food and employment for Pacific Islanders.”
For some South Pacific countries, it said, the tuna within their 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) “are their only major renewable resource.”
“However, in recent years,” the USCC report said, “increasing competition with subsidized Chinese vessels, declining catches, and depressed tuna prices are pushing many local tuna fishing fleets to exit the industry.”
In contrast, the growth of Chinese fishing fleets worldwide has been sustained by Chinese tax exemptions as well as by central and local government subsidies.
Chinese fishermen reach as far from home as West Africa and Latin America, so it should be no surprise that they’ve begun showing up in greater numbers in the South Pacific.
Chinese fishing companies are motivated by high profits.
And members of China’s growing middle class are willing to pay for high-quality fish.
China underreports distant-water catches
A 2012 European Parliament study found that China “massively underreports” the catch of its distant water fleets.
But Chinese boats are not the only foreign vessels to fish in the South Pacific.
Boats from Taiwan and sometimes from Italy and Spain can be seen there, though in smaller numbers than those from mainland China.
The United States is also part of the picture.
As the USCC notes, the United States negotiates access to Pacific island fisheries through a South Pacific Tuna Treaty.
The treaty allows 40 U.S. purse seine fishing boats to fish in the islands’ waters along with vessels from Australia and New Zealand.
A purse seine is a large line of netting, a kind of vertical net curtain, used to surround a school of fish. The bottom is drawn together much like a purse to enclose the fish.
According to the USCC report, the Chinese government has been sensitive to the criticism of its distant water fleets and has taken some steps to deter illegal fishing in the Western Central Pacific Ocean.
Those steps include fining and terminating the licenses of some Chinese companies found to have fished without authorization.
Toward the end of 2017, the Chinese government stopped calling for an expansion of the fleets.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture released a five-year plan that restricts the total number of offshore fishing boats to under 3,000 by the year 2021.
Worth watching in the future are Chinese provinces and fishing companies that would still like to expand their fishing catch rather than curb it.
On Jan. 7, Bloomberg magazine’s editorial board argued that illegal fishing carried out not only by Chinese fleets but also by other foreign fleets has reached the point where it needs to be taken seriously as a global security threat.
“More than 50 countries have signed a pact to better manage ports by denying entry to boats that can’t document their catches,” Bloomberg says.
But illegal fishermen head to smaller ports that still lack monitoring, and that includes some in the South Pacific.
Chinese investment in the South Pacific
As the USCC reports, Chinese direct investment in Pacific Island countries has grown rapidly, reaching $2.8 billion in 2016.
Nearly 70 percent of that investment was concentrated in Papua New Guinea, by far the most heavily populated of the Pacific Island countries.
President Xi Jinping’s visit to Papua New Guinea to attend a summit meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization held Nov. 17 and 18, 2018 underlined China’s growing links with Papua New Guinea.
But it also triggered criticism of China’s timber exports from Papua New Guinea from local environmental and community leaders.
On Nov. 22, 2018, John Cannon, writing for the website Mongabay, an environmental nonprofit organization, reported on a letter written by these local leaders during the APEC meeting and addressed to President Xi.
In the letter, which was delivered to China’s ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the group spoke of “illegalities and corruption that plague” PNG’s forestry sector.
“China’s influence in PNG is strong and growing,” Peter Bosip, executive director of the Papua New Guinea Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELOR) said in a statement.
“But, meanwhile, the forests that sustain our livelihoods and culture are being liquidated,” Bosip said.
Cannon reported that communities had not given their consent for the forests they are charged with managing to be cut down.
And, according to Cannon, agricultural companies have improperly used leases that were meant to promote food production to instead harvest and export timber.
The Belt and Road Initiative
While the Pacific Islands receive less Chinese attention than other areas of the world, Beijing includes the region in President Xi’s Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
This suggests that China has geostrategic interests in the region, the USCC says.
An April 2018 news report on purported discussions over a potential Chinese military base on Vanuatu raised concerns because it could pose challenges to U.S. defense interests as well as those of Australia and New Zealand, U.S. partners in the region.
The Economist magazine said in its Jan. 19 edition this year that the report that Vanuatu might allow China to build a military base there “really galvanized the Australian establishment.”
That development, had it been realized, the magazine said, would have crossed a red line: “the first potential military threat in Australia’s near-abroad since the Second World War.”
Both China and Vanuatu said that the report about a potential base was inaccurate.
But China’s diplomatic and strategic aims clearly include gaining access to raw materials and natural resources as well as reducing Taiwan’s presence among the Pacific Islands.
The Pacific Islands are home to six of Taiwan’s 18 diplomatic partners.
China’s inroads in Micronesia, where most of the United States’ engagement in the Pacific Islands is concentrated, could threaten U.S. agreements with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, according to the USCC report.
In a U.S. territory near Guam in the Northern Mariana Islands, Chinese investors’ casino resort development could complicate U.S. Department of Defense plans for extensive training and exercises for U.S. Marines based in Guam.
Marianas authorities and citizens have opposed the plans for training drills on Guam for fear that they will cause damage to a fast-growing tourism industry and casino business, according to RNZ, a New Zealand radio station.
Climate change is understandably also a big issue for many of the Pacific Islands’ governments.
The Cook Islands’ Prime Minister Henry Puma has asserted that once the United States withdrew from the 2017 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, other countries were “prepared to step into the vacuum of leadership that is left by America” in the South Pacific
But apart from its access to Pacific Island fisheries through a South Pacific treaty, the U.S. plays a role in fisheries management through its involvement in a Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
And the U.S. maintains a number of programs to help Pacific Island countries combat illegal fishing.
These include agreements with 10 of these countries that allow U.S. Coast Guard ships and aircraft to patrol national EEZs on their behalf.
Backlash against a Chinese diplomat in Nauru
Meanwhile, China has increased pressure on Taiwan’s unofficial partners in the Pacific Islands in an attempt to further reduce Taiwan’s influence in the region, according to the USCC report.
Following Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the island nation of Palau in 2017, China was reported to have banned Chinese tour group visits to Palau in an attempt to pressure Palau to abandon Taiwan.
Tourism plays a key role in Palau’s economy, and Chinese tourists comprise nearly half of all tourists visiting the island, according to the USCC.
While Beijing has bolstered its diplomatic presence in the South Pacific, Chinese diplomats have a mixed record so far in their efforts to enhance China’s image.
In one case in mid-September of last year, an island leader’s angry pushback against a Chinese diplomat went public.
Nauru’s President Baron Waqu demanded that China apologize for “arrogance” shown at a Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), where he accused the Chinese of “buying their way through the region.”
“They’re not our friends. They just need us for their own purposes,” President Waqu told reporters.
According to a report from Agence France Presse (AFP), the summit’s usual discussion on climate change was overshadowed by Nauru’s row with China over its treatment of asylum seekers held on the island under a deal with Australia.
As AFP reported, the diplomatic spat pitted Nauru, with a population of some 11,000 people and an area of eight square miles, against an Asian superpower.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.