Changing Dynamics in the South Pacific: Blessing in Disguise for the Region?

The South Pacific region has been the international community’s spotlight as it has become more attractive to many great powers.

The South Pacific region has been the international community’s spotlight as it has become more attractive to many great powers. The significant changes in its economic and geopolitical landscape led to its increasing relevance globally, attracting strategic interest from external powers, prominently the US and China. This changing dynamics raises the question, “How do the region utilize this opportunity for their good?”.

From the surface, it might be challenging to understand how these small states in the middle of the ocean could maneuver amidst excellent power rivalry. Nevertheless, it is always challenging to see it from the other side, and it should be done to ensure that those countries will not be passive and just become the ‘object.’ First of all, we must realize that although the countries in the region are relatively small, they have standard privileges in their strategic location and abundant natural resources. The South Pacific region is undeniably strategic as it sits between the vast Pacific Ocean and two regional powers, Australia and New Zealand. It makes sense if those external powers that want to exert influence in the region consider the area imperative. Moreover, the region’s abundant natural resources offer significant opportunities for beneficial economic cooperation. 

China’s Growing Influence and The US Resistance

It is not a secret that China’s influence in the region has grown exponentially in recent years. However, it did not happen overnight. Although Western allies have been the traditional hegemon in the area, China’s presence could also be traced for a long time. Since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese traders’ search for commercial opportunities has spread through the region, leading to diverse groups of Chinese people establishing communities on the islands. So, it is not surprising that many Chinese communities are living throughout the region these days. The ponderous change happened in the 1980s when China became more integrated into the global economy; their influence also snowballed throughout Asia and the Pacific regarding economics and military and political leverage. Today, they have become an essential player in the region, with some suggesting they have taken a prime position from the Western allies.

Furthermore, introducing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 has regarded the Pacific as a strategic area for China’s economic expansion. Since the initiative launched in 2013, China has improved the lives of the local people in the region by implementing thousands of small-scale projects. China has increased its aid to the Pacific region from only USD 126.66 million in 2012 to USD 287.30 million in 2016, while distributing over USD 2000 million in 2017 and 2018. Additionally, China has made the Pacific Islands one of its main export markets. For instance, the Fiji International Trade Company started facilitating the sale of Fijian skincare products to China after realizing that China required high-quality skincare products. This indicates that Beijing’s strategy over the years has produced some benefits as they expected.

The US does more than just stay still and watch the changing fold. They have responded through several policies, including shifting their focus from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific. In 2011, the Obama administration introduced the ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, which aimed to strengthen their existence in the region by promoting stronger trade and investment links, renewing the alliances with the countries in the region, and supporting democracy transition. Then, in 2019, Deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Cristelle Pratt, declared that “great power competition is back!” amidst sporadic activity on the part of Australia, New Zealand, and the US at countering China. On the same occasion, Pratt further suggested that “…our task is to find an appropriate balance between leveraging the competition between partners and ensuring peace and cooperation prevails in our Blue Islands” ”(Wesley-Smith et al., 2021).

The US and its allies also introduced the Blue Pacific concept in 2022. The strategy aims to tackle strategic issues such as maritime security, health security, illegal fishing, and plastic pollution, which was considered capable of tightening the relationship between Western allies and the region. It was then followed by the announcement of the US intention to renegotiate compacts of free association with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, which were meant to give those three South Pacific special economic and military protections.

The struggle between these two giants generates instability and dilemmas for the countries in the region to comport themselves. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see it from another standpoint to understand how this rivalry could benefit the region.

What advantages does the region gain?

In the eye of the storm, the states in the region could and should utilize the disruption for their benefit. The ongoing rivalry has made the region more and more notable, which means the region’s states also become more significant regardless of their ‘small size.’ That is why China and the US compete to invest in those states. For China, Pacific states offer low-investment, high-reward opportunities for their global agenda. Through BRI, they have been involved severely in the region’s infrastructure development, which some of them cost quite a lot of money, like the construction of Chuuk roads in Micronesia (USD 50 million), the rehabilitation project of Tanna and Malekula roads in Vanuatu (USD 52 million), the upgrading of Nabouwalu Dreketi road in Fiji (USD 135 million), and the Kamil submarine cable project in Papua New Guinea (USD 234.93 million). China also actively assisted the Pacific Island nations in building their human resource. It has trained nearly 10,000 professionals in various disciplines, including public administration, agriculture, forestry, stock husbandry, fisheries, and education.

China also realizes that a massive-scale project is only sometimes the answer to tie up its relationship with the region. In the third BRI Construction Symposium, President Xi pointed out the importance of ‘small and beautiful projects’ that can touch people’s hearts and impact their everyday livelihoods. One of the examples of this project is Juncao and Upland Rice Technology, which was implemented in Papua New Guinea and aims to introduce a new crop and farming technology. Another example is the bridge building in Kiribati that connects the North and South Tarawa, which aims to provide a route for goods transportation. This kind of project not only created jobs for locals but was also followed by a transfer of technology and knowledge that benefited the people in the area.

Conversely, the US has responded by unveiling some policies, including the Pacific Partnership Strategy, which aims to fortify diplomatic ties between the US and Pacific Island nations. Several goals that become the main focus of this policy are to establish a robust partnership with the Pacific Islands, to strengthen diplomatic ties between the Pacific Islands and the rest of the world, to build resilience in the region, to tackle the problem of climate change, and other 21st-century issues, as well as to empower the region by providing it with more economic and educational opportunities. To support the initiative, the US has committed $810 million to the region, consisting of more than $130 million in investments to support climate resilience and strengthen the region’s economies, as well as a $600 million economic assistance request to Congress.


The significant development in infrastructure spending is expected to have a ‘spillover’ effect through the region, leading to improvements in domestic production capabilities and goods transportation. This also means more job opportunities for the people, which could resolve one of the region’s main problems, the brain drain phenomenon. As many high-skilled and educated individuals choose to stay and work in their country, it would improve the economy and other sectors. 

As we understand, the rivalry between these great powers turns out not only brings problems but also blessings for the region. The presence of China as a balancer (or challenger?) has provided an alternative for the countries in the region. On the other side, the US and their allies’ concern force them to pay more attention to the South Pacific, which could only mean increasing the region’s bargaining power to ‘ask more’ from both sides.

Yusril Ihza Mahendra
Yusril Ihza Mahendra
Yusril Ihza Mahendra is a master's student at Gadjah Mada University. His research interests cover the issues of regional politics, security, and economic development, as well as political discourse in international relations.