CHINA LOOKS TO THE SOUTH PACIFIC

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Stratfor Global Intelligence Update

May 21, 2001

Summary

In recent weeks, Beijing has stepped up contacts in an unusual and remote corner of the world: the South Pacific. Beijing's involvement in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific is part of a larger Chinese strategy, one that will give Beijing increasing economic, political and - potentially military - leverage.

Analysis

Beijing has held talks with separatists from Indonesia's eastern-most province of Irian Jaya, according to a spokesman for the separatists. Franzalbert Joku, a member of the political wing of the Free Papua movement, told the Sydney Morning Herald dialogue with China was open, and that Beijing had invited a high-level delegation of separatists to China in June.

While Joku said China has not yet decided whether to support the independence movement, the discussions reveal an expanding Chinese strategy in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Beijing has expanded economic and political relations steadily in the region, both to boost its regional position and to prepare for potential confrontation with the Untied States.

A potential security implication exists in this vast area of open ocean. China is still a long way from fielding a blue-water navy capable of countering the United States. But influence in these islands could yield political - and potentially military - reach into an area strategically important to both Australia and the United States and particularly to the U.S. Navy, which has enjoyed uncontested access.

The burgeoning ties with Indonesian separatists represent a potentially disturbing problem for both Canberra and Washington. Indonesia's central location between the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and Pacific Ocean makes it a strategic chokepoint for trade and naval forces. Jakarta already faces a severe political crisis.

The efforts in the far-flung provinces suggest attempts to go through the front door, the Indonesian capital, are failing. Beijing has sought to expand ties with Jakarta, but progress has been constrained due to the historic Indonesian animosity toward Chinese communists; the violence of the 1960s left hundreds of thousands dead. By courting separatist movements, Beijing gains leverage regardless of what happens in Jakarta.

Joku, the separatist leader, claimed Beijing's support for the West Papuan independence movement was contingent upon the group gaining support at the next South Pacific (Pacific Islands) Forum. Beijing apparently added that Chinese support is more likely, as long as Washington and Canberra withhold help. This presents a sort of ultimatum to Canberra and Washington. Both would rather Indonesia holds together. And yet by doing so, they run the risk of increasing Chinese involvement.

The Chinese overtures are part of a much larger pattern, stretching beyond Indonesia. China has steadily increased its contacts and involvement in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia in recent years. In particular, Beijing has exploited the need for regional development aid, offering loans and grants without the overt political and economic policy strings the United States, Australia or international lending institutions attach to such aid. In 2000, China's developmental aid to Papua New Guinea increased 72 percent to $300 million in Australian dollars, nearly matching Australia's $320 million for the year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Already China is developing or expanding contact with Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tonga and the Solomon Islands. Beijing has built a new Foreign Ministry building in Papua New Guinea and begun military contacts, while Vanuatu's recently ousted Prime Minister Barak Sope visited Beijing in October 2000, where he met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and military officials. Beijing also has a developing military relationship with Tonga, offering training and military aid, and staffs a satellite- and missile-tracking facility in Kiribati.

Beijing's skillful exploitation of the South Pacific nations' dependence on foreign aid and trade is enhanced by local distaste for economic strictures brought in by international lending agencies and Washington. With ethnic and political instability already rife in many of these nations, it is easy for Beijing to insert itself not as a moralistic outside force - nor even a Maoist nor Communist ideological force - but simply as a concerned Asian nation with cash.

Through these economic ties, Beijing hopes to gain greater political leverage and, eventually, strategically valuable relationships. Beijing views a future conflict with the United States as extremely likely, yet it is unable to counterbalance Washington's military might, particularly its naval capabilities. Through its dealings with South Pacific nations, Beijing can turn political influence into military capability in the event of a crisis.

China's expanding relationships in Southeast Asia and the Pacific have gone largely unnoticed, but they now are gaining some attention in Australia, which counts the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia in its primary area of security responsibility. In an upcoming visit to Tokyo, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer will call upon Japan to take a greater role in East Asian security, according to Australian media. Downer's comments reveal Canberra's growing concern over the expanding economic, political and - potentially - military reach of China into the South Pacific.

While Beijing is unlikely to deploy forces to the South Pacific soon, its relationships with the island nations offer it a strategic tool to counter U.S. naval power in Asia. The Chinese military has paid great attention to the development of shore-based anti-ship missiles - systems it eventually could deploy throughout the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. A chain of islands harboring with anti-ship missiles could cause a serious delay in military deployments to the region.

Such a chain of islands, situated along key shipping routes between the United States and Australia and potentially extending along the Indonesian archipelago to the Indian Ocean, could seriously disrupt trade and supply lines in the event of a confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

Received from Joyo Indonesian News.

Paul Barber TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign 25 Plovers Way, Alton Hampshire GU34 2JJ Tel/Fax: 01420 80153 Email: plovers@gn.apc.org  Internet: www.gn.apc.org/tapol 

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