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The Pacific islands have become the latest front in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the West. In April, China and Solomon Islands signed a controversial security agreement, while earlier this month China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, wrapped up an unprecedented 10-day tour of the region. He managed to secure a number of bilateral agreements, but not the comprehensive Chinese-Pacific security pact Beijing had reportedly been hoping for with 10 Pacific island countries.
All this has raised concern among the established regional powers—primarily Australia and the United States—that China’s growing military presence could upset the region’s geopolitical balance. Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, made two trips to the region, one in parallel with Wang’s stay and another days after his departure. At the end of May, it was announced that Fiji would join the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and last week US President Joe Biden’s special envoy, Joseph Yun, visited the Marshall Islands.
As the Pacific island countries negotiate this diplomatic tug-of-war, developments in China’s military aid to the region offer valuable insight into what is happening with China’s military presence. This blog explores data and trends in China’s military aid to Pacific island countries over the past two decades.
China’s priorities in the Pacific
Until recently, Beijing’s engagement with the Pacific island countries has primarily focused on economic cooperation, notably via the Belt and Road initiative. However, it now seems that Beijing aims to deepen political and military ties with the region, likely linked to great power rivalry with the USA and its allies.
In particular, China is alarmed by the revival of the Quad alliance—formally the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, between Australia, India, Japan and the USA—and by the newly formed AUKUS pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA. In a recent statement, China’s Foreign Ministry the Quad as ‘a tool for containing and besieging China to maintain US hegemony’, and claimed that AUKUS ‘escalates regional tension, provokes an arms race, threatens regional peace and stability’.
The Pacific is also a region where China’s diplomatic competition with Taiwan plays out. Solomon Islands only switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, a decision that fuelled civil unrest in Solomon Islands in 2021 and paved the way for the new security agreement with China.
Chinese military aid to Pacific island countries
The latest data published by SIPRI shows that China is the world’s second largest military spender. It has increased its spending, in real terms, every year since 1995—the longest stretch of uninterrupted growth recorded by any country.
China does not publish disaggregated data on its military aid, which falls under what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) calls ‘military cooperation’, encompassing equipment assistance, personnel training and joint exercises. Therefore, the data on Chinese military aid presented below is based on estimates consolidated from a variety of sources, including budget documents of recipient countries, announcements by Chinese embassies overseas and media reports.
Over the past two decades, Beijing is known to have provided military aid to all the four Pacific island countries with a standing military: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu (see table 1).
Fiji was the first of these to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1975 and has to date one of the closest military relationships with Beijing in the region. Since 2000 China has regularly supported the Fijian military with vehicles, uniforms and personnel training. In 2018 China pledged a grant of US$4.3 million to Fiji’s armed forces, equivalent to 6 per cent of Fiji’s military expenditure ($77.6 million) that year. Also in 2018, the PLA gifted a hydrographic and surveillance vessel to the Fijian navy, and in April 2022 donated another 47 specialized military vehicles. The financial value of the last two batches of equipment is not known, so the total value of China’s military aid to Fiji is likely to be considerably higher than the $5.9 million shown in the table.
Papua New Guinea is the biggest recipient of Chinese military aid in the region, having received more than $18 million between 2000 and 2020, according to SIPRI estimates. This aid ranged from military infrastructure and logistical support to personnel training and over 100 vehicles for the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Among others, China donated 62 vehicles worth $5 million in total in 2017, which included armoured vehicles, troop carriers and mobile kitchen vans.
China has delivered around $2.6 million worth of military aid to Tonga in the past 20 years. Between 2018 and 2020, China provided 2.2 per cent of Tonga’s military expenditure, totalling $626,000. (To put this in context, Australia contributed 37 per cent and the USA 26 per cent in the same period.) China also provided military trucks and logistical services to the Tongan armed forces as early as 2008.
Aid from the PLA to Vanuatu’s small mobile force has predominantly been regular personnel trainings and supply of non-lethal equipment, with the recent exception of 14 military vehicles delivered in 2017.
China’s military aid to four Pacific island countries, 2000–2020
* Values are in constant 2020 US$. The figures are likely to be underestimated because of a lack of disaggregated official Chinese data on foreign military aid.
Note: Data are for the four Pacific island countries that maintain their own armed forces. Others rely on Australia, New Zealand or the USA for defence.
In general, China’s military aid to these four countries has become more diverse over the past two decades. In the early 2000s, it was largely confined to non-lethal forms such as upgrading military hospitals or providing uniforms and buses. In recent years, however, Beijing has increasingly supplied more combat-oriented equipment like military vehicles and vessels, in line with its pursuit of deepening military ties in the region.
It is important to note, however, that China’s military aid to Pacific island countries is still smaller than the $963 million provided by Australia and the $52 million provided by the USA between 2000 and 2020.
Beyond military aid
While this is going on, China is apparently seeking to normalize its military presence in the region through growing non-military activities by the PLA, such as disaster response and humanitarian aid. For example, both the PLA Air Force and Navy were involved in delivering relief supplies to Tonga in early 2022 after a volcanic eruption and tsunami. China also sent anti-riot equipment and provided police training to Solomon Islands after the 2021 unrest.
China’s official development assistance (ODA) to the Pacific islands dwarfs the military aid it has supplied. China provided $1.5 billion in ODA to the region between 2013 and 2018 (the latest period for which official data is available for China), making it the second largest donor after Australia ($4.8 billion) in that period.
What distinguishes China from most donors is the modality its aid: large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans, rather than the ODA grants preferred by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donors. Concessional loans from the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China accounted for about half of Tonga’s debt repayments between 2018 and 2020—which will rise to over 80 per cent from 2024, due to the bank’s funding of several major Tongan infrastructure projects.
Chinese loans can be an attractive alternative source of funding for many Pacific island countries, as they do not come with the political conditions, such as good governance, that traditional donors often attach. These loans have also been seen as providing leverage for China to build up political and military influence in the Pacific in competition with the USA, a claim that Beijing has denied.
Is China an emerging military power in the Pacific?
Although China evidently has ambitions to expand its military reach in the Pacific, it would be premature to call it a regional military power. China’s military aid to Pacific island countries has diversified in recent years but remains trivial in both volume and substance, primarily comprising non-lethal support and vehicles with low value. Speculation about Chinese plans to build a military base on the territory of a Pacific island state has been around for years, but has been consistently denied by both Beijing and the Pacific countries involved, and no such base has materialized.
So far, the mounting economic and political influence Beijing has gained through development aid, infrastructure loans and trade poses a bigger challenge to the geopolitical status quo in the Pacific than its military activities.
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