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Nauru's decision underscores the improving influence of China in the Pacific

Luke Mani

A ground breaking ceremony of the 2023 Pacific Games Stadium Project is held in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, May 5, 2021. /Xinhua
A ground breaking ceremony of the 2023 Pacific Games Stadium Project is held in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, May 5, 2021. /Xinhua

A ground breaking ceremony of the 2023 Pacific Games Stadium Project is held in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, May 5, 2021. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Luke Mani, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is director of the Solomon Islands Foreign Policy Advisory Secretariat. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

On January 15, the Government of Nauru, a nation in the South Pacific, announced its decision to recognize the one-China principle and sever "diplomatic relations" with Taiwan. The shift in relations between Nauru and Taiwan underlines a larger trend in the region, where China has rapidly expanded and consolidated its influence, despite concerted efforts by some regional powers to contain its influence. 

Not long ago, China used to enjoy uninhibited acceptance in the region. Things however took a drastic turn in 2019 with the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and two new Pacific Island countries: Kiribati and, particularly, the Solomon Islands. Even when the Solomon Islands was still contemplating a diplomatic switch to China, there was already uproar in the region as Australia, the United States, and allies scrambled to prevent the Solomon Islands from following through on their decision amid fears of threats China would impose against their strategic interests.

The significance of Nauru's recent snub of Taiwan region in favor of China's diplomatic fortunes in the Pacific region can be appreciated by examining the evolution of the Solomon Islands-China relations over the past five years and its influence on regional affairs. Though China has long established diplomatic relations with all the major countries in the region, Australia, and the U.S. were largely oblivious to China's presence. This was despite significant Chinese private sector and state investment in the two largest countries, Papua New Guinea and Fiji over the past two decades.

However, with the former U.S. President Donald Trump's inauguration in late 2016 and deteriorating U.S.-China relations, the establishment of the China-Solomon Islands' diplomatic relationship in 2019 suddenly attracted deep scrutiny.

The governments of the Solomon Islands and China, however, devised an innovative arrangement: the China-Solomon Islands security pact. Signed in April 2022, this agreement allows for China's involvement in policing to secure their investments, protect lives, and maintain national security. The security cooperation between China and the Solomon Islands benefits long-term peace and order in the Solomon Islands and serves the common interests in the South Pacific region. It is open and transparent, and does not target any third party.

Though there was initial panic in Australia and the U.S. over concerns about "China's purported militarization" of the region, the security pact inadvertently set the conditions necessary for the successful completion of the 2023 Pacific Games infrastructure, a key Belt and Road Initiative project.

The Parliament of Nauru, January 15, 2024. /Xinhua
The Parliament of Nauru, January 15, 2024. /Xinhua

The Parliament of Nauru, January 15, 2024. /Xinhua

The 2023 Pacific Games itself, held in Honiara in November 2023, turned out to be a highly successful advertisement for China's Pacific influence. Attended by 5000 athletes and officials from 24 Pacific countries and large numbers of Solomon Islanders, the region witnessed first-hand the actual results of China-Solomon Islands cooperation. Impressed by the China-funded and built infrastructure, including its centerpiece, the state-of-the-art 10,000-seater stadium, many even claimed the 2023 Pacific games to be the best-ever. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said that the 2023 Pacific Games Stadium Project is "a gift" from the government and people of China to the government and people of the Solomon Islands.

Complemented by infrastructure projects funded by other bilateral and multilateral development partners, such as the newly built airport terminal, a new four-lane highway and hostels, the Pacific games squashed all anti-China misinformation on their head. Instead of the evil and destabilizing China that was paraded in some media, what the Pacific region witnessed was tangible infrastructure that builds community bonds and transforms the aesthetics of a country and city either through the Chinese government and private investment or through the development assistance China competition induces. 

Fellow Pacific neighbors who knew the Solomon Islands and China's cooperation only from the negative press were pleasantly surprised by the excellent facilities. Even locals were spell-bound by the transformation from a stretch of dusty dilapidated landscape into a modern, clean and pleasant place.

Therefore, seeking to restore diplomatic relations with China is a good choice independently made by Nauru as a sovereign country. It was validation of China's focus on tangible development versus the West's concerted and sustained efforts at misinformation. China has finally convinced the Pacific, particularly through the Pacific Games, that only tangible results matter, not empty rhetoric and fear-mongering.

For island nations such as Nauru facing serious economic pressures and starved of political and economic attention, China represents a very compelling and appealing partner as show-cased by results of the China-Solomon Islands cooperation. By focusing on its strengths in infrastructure development, investment and trade particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been able to convince the Pacific that it is a trust-worthy and reliable partner.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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