Great power competition and climate security in the Pacific

Geostrategic competition is blinding countries from the threat of climate change in the Pacific.

Expert comment
Published 7 July 2022 Updated 14 September 2022 3 minute READ

Jason Young

Director, Contemporary China Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent 10-day tour of the Pacific Islands has put China’s Pacific strategy into the global spotlight. Drawing attention to growing US-China strategic competition in the region, the tour has raised the spectre of securitization of the South Pacific. But such concern is overshadowing a long-standing Pacific call for security from a threat of a different kind.

Climate change remains the single greatest threat to the peoples of the Pacific.

‘Climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific,’ according to the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, outlined by the Pacific Islands Forum. The need for climate security was re-emphasized recently by Fijian Defense Minister, Inia Seruiratu, who stated, ‘The single greatest threat to our very existence is […] human-induced climate change. It threatens our very hopes and dreams of prosperity’.

Geostrategic competition, while an issue that should not be ignored, has blinded many from the threat of climate change and Chinese efforts at tailoring parts of its economic, diplomatic and aid programmes in the Pacific in order to become the region’s partner of choice in the search for climate security.

Climate security in the Pacific

In a region not responsible for anthropogenic changes in the global climate and yet more geographically vulnerable to these changes than most, climate security, not geostrategic competition, should be the priority of external powers seeking to improve security in the region.

Few parts of the world are as vulnerable to the disruption of climate change as the Pacific. Many island nations are low-lying and susceptible to sea-level rise, as well as extreme weather, where tropical cyclones have long lasting effects on critical infrastructure in countries under-equipped to deal with them.

Many island nations are low-lying and susceptible to sea-level rise, as well as extreme weather, where tropical cyclones have long lasting effects on critical infrastructure.

The 2021 World Risk Index’s assessment of disaster risk for 181 countries around the world found that, of all continents, Oceania has the highest risk due to ‘high exposure to extreme natural events’. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tonga are the three most at risk countries in the world, with Papua New Guinea ranking 9th, Fiji 14th and Kiribati 19th. But the risk is not only a question of exposure to climate change but also a lack of adaptation to climate change too.

This underscores the very real challenge that climate change presents the South Pacific and the importance of focusing on developing sustainable growth that utilizes local resources, especially the resources of the Pacific Ocean, for development.

China’s Pacific engagement

Chinese engagement in the Pacific is not new. It has developed over many decades with Beijing stepping up its diplomatic engagement, increasing its aid programmes and providing investments in infrastructure and economic activity in the region in recent years.

Wang Yi’s recent tour continues sustained high-level diplomatic engagement following on from last year’s China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014 and Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit in 2006, in addition to, the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum which has occurred since 2006.

Yet this latest visit is distinct in the types of agreements that have been sought, including controversial security cooperation agreements in the Solomon Islands, as well as the unsuccessful attempt to ink a sub-regional security agreement with a select group of Pacific nations.

What is consistent, however, and not remarked on enough, has been the focus on climate change adaptation. As Solomon Islands journalist Dorothy Wickham has said, China provides opportunities for development desperately needed in developing parts of the Pacific including economic recovery from the pandemic, new centres for agricultural development, disaster management and climate change cooperation.

Interestingly, China’s aid to the Pacific declined before the pandemic, falling by 31 per cent from $246 million in 2018 to $169 million in 2019, which is its lowest levels of aid to the region since 2012. Yet renewal of the partnership could see an increase of aid for Pacific Island countries.

The negative impacts of China’s development spending that have surfaced in other countries such as excessive debt, infrastructure with ecological impacts or costly ‘white elephant’ projects. 

Furthermore, going forward, it will be important to avoid the negative impacts of China’s development spending that has surfaced in other countries such as excessive debt dependencies, infrastructure with ecological impacts or costly ‘white elephant’ projects with little or no benefits for local communities. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that climate change has become an increasingly important part of China-Pacific relations in recent years. The IMF estimates an average investment in the Pacific for climate-proofing infrastructure of between 6.5 and 9 per cent of the region’s GDP is needed annually. Such investment should be encouraged from China and other countries invested in the region but far more needs to be done and there is a moral imperative to do so.

Lessons for Western countries

As strategic interest in the Pacific Islands grows, countries seeking to engage more in the region should pay attention to the security interests of the Pacific as outlined by Pacific leaders such as Dame Meg Taylor who warned about the high stakes rivalry between the US and China.

Countries need to step up their efforts to support climate security in the Pacific by supporting island nations building resilience to the impacts of climate change. Following the recent election in Australia, the new government announced an increase of development aid to the Pacific – $525 million to Australia’s Official Development Assistance for Pacific countries and Timor-Leste over the next four years – after many years of neglecting Pacific Island development concerns especially on climate change.

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But Western governments should not instrumentalize climate and development cooperation for geopolitical goals. The UK government’s new development strategy has been criticized for prioritizing geopolitics over long-term development goals. There is also too little in the strategy to suggest that the UK is addressing the needs of those most affected by climate change.  

Trying to prevent China from supporting climate change adaptation in the region would be counterproductive to regional security. The Pacific needs solutions for its development challenges and security concerns. While this is easily overshadowed by geostrategic competition, that doesn’t mean it should be. Unless countries provide viable alternatives that address the urgent development needs and climate security concerns of Pacific Island states, China will remain the partner of choice.