In August 2020, China's ambassador to the Pacific island nation of Kiribati raised a great deal of controversy when he literally walked on the backs of a line of islanders. The United States and its allies strongly condemned the scenario. "I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behaviour by an ambassador of any country," wrote Constantine Panayiotou, the US defense attache to Kiribati, on Twitter.
But the Chinese saw matters differently. The ambassador, Tang Songgen, claimed that the locals had merely shown him deference according to their own cultural traditions. China's state-owned newspaper, the Global Times, stepped up the rhetoric further. "Portraying the welcome ceremony as being symbolic of 'subjugation' reflects some Western politicians' grievances and concerns over the growing friendship between China and Kiribati," the newspaper sniffed.
This incident was a microcosm of the geopolitical tensions currently at play in the Pacific. As China has increasingly turned its attention to the Pacific island states, the United States and its allies have not followed suit. With the recent discord within the Pacific Islands Forum, though, the Biden administration has the perfect opportunity to establish the United States as a diplomatic partner for the region and a counterweight to China.
China, Taiwan, and the Pacific
There are 14 sovereign nations in the Pacific with nearly 15 million people between them, divided into three large groups: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Micronesia mainly consists of small coral atolls in the western parts of Oceania north of the Equator; Melanesian islands are south of the Equator but north of Australia; and Polynesian islands are in the center and eastern parts of the Pacific. In World War II, these islands achieved great strategic importance as Chester Nimirz pursued his "island hopping" strategy to get closer to the Japanese mainland. Indeed, the Marine Corps' invasion of Iwo Jima in this campaign achieved legendary status.
Recently, the Pacific islands have gained more attention internationally with their focus on climate change diplomacy. In particular, these island states have established a strong bloc within the United Nations to push for more stringent action on this subject. Since each member state gets one vote in the United Nations regardless of size, they can certainly punch above their weight in international fora like the General Assembly.
Although influence in the United Nations is certainly on China's mind as it expands its presence in the Pacific, another state closer to home represents a higher geopolitical priority: Taiwan. Since six out of the 18 countries that formally recognized Taiwan in 2018 were located in the Pacific, China launched a strong influence campaign there to persuade those nations to switch diplomatic allegiance. After all, losing any one of the few countries that recognized Taiwan would harm Taiwan's claim for full sovereignty.
When Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both decided to switch relations over to mainland China within the span of two weeks in September 2019, Taiwan suffered a major blow. Indeed, Taiwan's foreign minister accused...