Has China overseas military bases

China's "embrace" of the Pacific Islands worries the west

To find them on a map, you have to look very carefully: The South Pacific Islands. Pictures show palm trees, bright blue water and beautiful beaches. But this island paradise is increasingly becoming the scene of a strategic rivalry between China and the western powers, primarily Australia and the USA.

In the past ten years, Beijing has granted six billion US dollars in grants and preferential loans for various infrastructure measures in the mostly poor countries, from New Guinea to the island state of Tonga, which is over 4,000 kilometers to the east. At the same time, Beijing is pushing Taiwan further and further out of the region. Only four states - Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu - are Taiwan's diplomatic allies.

Jeremiah Manele, Foreign Minister of the Solomon Islands, seals diplomatic relations with China with his counterpart Wang Yi.

Whirlwind about leasing a Solomon Islands

The example of the Solomon Islands clearly shows the close amalgamation of China's diplomatic, economic and strategic intentions. Just a few days after the Solomon Islands, an archipelago with 630,000 inhabitants off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan at the end of September 2019 and opened up with Beijing, an opaque lease agreement was signed with the Chinese state conglomerate Sam Group for the island of Tulagi ( Resident: 1,000), the New York Times revealed in late October. The future use of the site should be left entirely to the investor.

There was resistance among the population. It was feared that in the end China would want to establish a military base there. The treaty was eventually declared invalid by the Solomon Islands government because it was not signed by them but by the province of which Tulagi belongs.

Geostrategic rivalry

The USA, which had tried in vain to dissuade the Solomon Islands from their diplomatic move towards Beijing, expressed its satisfaction with the cancellation of the lease. "Sovereignty, transparency and the rule of law would have prevailed," said US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The return coach from Beijing was not long in coming: "We really have to ask the Americans: Are they really that concerned about the interests of the Pacific island states and their inhabitants, or are their geopolitical interests more important to them?"

There is no question that geostrategic rivalry is at stake, as Roland Seib, who has been observing political and social developments in the South Pacific on site since the 1980s, explains in an interview with DW. "There are great fears that China, beyond the South China Sea, will also claim the South Pacific in the medium term and want to push back the USA."

There is also concern that China could undermine civil society freedoms and democracy in the countries. But that is more of a problem from the perspective of the West. "The small states in the Pacific don't see the problem," said Seib. For most of them, aid from China as a donor is in the foreground, because they have little opportunity to generate economic growth on their own.

Financed by China: Vanuatu's oversized conference center

Economic dependencies

The most economically dependent on China are Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. China donated the latter a huge conference center for almost 30 million US dollars in 2016, but the country can no longer maintain the facility on its own. The fact that China deliberately wants to lure countries into a debt trap, as is sometimes claimed, has not been confirmed by the Australian Lowy Institute, which specializes in island nation politics and regional relations, but the level of debt in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu is "dangerous" reached.

Against this background, American and Australian security circles expect that a Chinese-financed large quay in Vanuatu, the largest of its kind in the South Pacific, could one day be used by China as a naval base. Last year, media reports of such a plan were denied by Vanuatu and Beijing. China currently has no military base in the South Pacific, explains South Pacific expert Roland Seib, but the fears that China could expand its military influence there are still real: "It doesn't have to come now, but it may come in ten years."

Pacific Island Forum members at a meeting in August 2019: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern with her counterparts from Fiji, Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia

New interest in the South Pacific - also in Berlin

Australia has taken action and this summer set up a military training unit to support its Pacific neighbors ("Pacific Support Force"). It should be about security, disaster control, humanitarian aid. Canberra's official language makes it clear that it is indirectly about a response to China's expansion in the region: "Australia has a permanent interest in a south-western Pacific that is strategically secure, economically stable and politically sovereign."

In the meantime, even Germany feels called upon to make its contribution, as Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer revealed in a keynote address on security policy at the beginning of November: "Our partners in the Indo-Pacific region - above all Australia, Japan and South Korea, but also India - feel are increasingly pressed by China's claim to power. They want a clear sign of solidarity for applicable international law, for undamaged territory, for free shipping. It is time for Germany to send out such a sign by being present with our allies in the Show region. "

The Solomon Islands also took part in the global climate protest on September 20th

Sea levels are rising and Beijing is getting closer

However, it is not to be assumed that the flag of the German Navy will soon be flying in the Korallensee. When asked by DW, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Berlin said: "There are many, not just military, options for different maritime German presence. These include strategic dialogue at various levels, the boarding of German soldiers on foreign ships and participation in maneuvers and exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. No particular option has currently been set. "

On the particularly flat islands, which rise only a few meters above sea level at their highest points, the main concern is probably less Chinese desire for expansion than the rising sea level. However, when Beijing offered Tuvalu financial aid to build artificial islands, the dwarf state turned it down. Relations with Taiwan are still firmly established.

Collaboration: Hans Spross