Few in the U.S. pay much attention to the goings-on in the South Pacific, but the regular outbreaks of vicious ethnic violence in the Pacific merits far wider notice. Time after time, frustrated native Pacific Islanders choose to lash out at Chinese expatriates, only to see China do little more than express irritation. Last month, after three days of rioting, native Pacific Islanders left the Solomon Islands capital of Honoria in shambles, burning and looting many ethnic Chinese-owned businesses.
This time, international response was swift. Police and military personnel from Papua New Guinea, Australia, Fiji and New Zealand rushed in to restore order. But while the South Pacific mobilized, China’s Foreign Ministry still fumed, with a spokesperson saying that the communist country will “safeguard the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions.”
Pacific island rioters are becoming desperate pawns in a dangerous game. The next time poor, hungry and angry Pacific Islanders are incited target expatriate Chinese, China could do much more than just sputter from the sidelines. The Chinese public is eager to see the state’s modern military employed to protect threatened expatriates, and the islands of Oceania offer ideal testing grounds for China’s vision of modern conflict; fusing psychological, public opinion and legal “warfare” to a favorable tactical—or even strategic—outcomes.
Oceania’s depressing drumbeat of ethnic outrages offers the Chinese military regular opportunities to use their new power-projection assets in relatively benign environments. Stability and non-combatant evacuation operations are harmless activities in themselves, but there is always the likelihood that, once a modest Chinese force has landed on a suitably strategic atoll, Chinese leaders will simply take over the place and never leave.
There’s no way for China to lose. A successful temporary intervention or small expat rescue would be popular domestically, raising the professional profile of China’s military services. But a well-timed, “disproportionate” Chinese response to Oceania’s regular spasms of ethnic unrest offers China a particularly easy route to catapult beyond the “Second Island Chain,” outflanking the U.S. and threatening routes to Australia and the rest of the Indo-Pacific region.
Pushing The South China Sea Template East
As a range of economic, environmental, and political pressures continue to weaken the foundations of law-based order in the South Pacific, Chinese expatriate communities are tempting targets for frustrated Pacific Islanders. Ethnically distinct Chinatowns, Chinese-run resource extraction infrastructure, or un-assimilating Chinese workers can be easily found and even more easily abused.
China’s response to threatened Chinese has evolved over time. In 2006, Tongan rioters destroyed more than 25 percent of the Chinese stores in the capital Nuku’alofa. In the same year, Solomon Islands rioters, protesting a controversial election and bribery allegations, destroyed Honoria’s Chinatown. Ethnically-charged riots also hit East Timor. In response, the Chinese government chartered civilian planes to evacuate hundreds of Chinese expats.
In 2011, the Chinese Navy got involved in non-combatant evacuation. Off Libya, a Chinese warship escorted a motley group of chartered civilian vessels as more than 30,000 Chinese expatriates rushed to escape the deteriorating country. In 2015, Chinese naval vessels were used to directly evacuate Chinese and other nationals from Yemen.
With new tools, the temptation for China to engage in targeted “stability” or “evacuation” operations will grow. With three new Yushen class (Type 075) amphibious assault ships and eight Yuzhao class (Type 071) amphibious transport docks, China can project a sizable force that, once landed in a permissive environment, would be tough to dislodge. If no multinational tripwire is present, China can quickly activate civilian air and sea “bridges” to “change conditions” on the ground, setting the stage for China to install a friendly protectorate or even launch into a permanent occupation.
Helping China Overcome Dynastic Temptations
To help China overcome the temptations of reaching beyond the Second Island Chain, the U.S. and allied governments must invest a lot more in the basics of diplomacy, pushing and promoting the fundamentals of good government. The U.S. State Department needs more diplomats roving the region, presenting the U.S. as a viable alternative, while, at sea, more U.S. Coast Guard vessels can help Pacific Island nations pounce on illegal activity and break up massed hordes of Chinese fishing boats.
No expenses should be spared in detecting and revealing Chinese efforts to corrupt or destabilize the fragile democracies of Oceania.
Over the longer-term, it may also be helpful to differentiate between native Pacific Islanders and those of Asian descent—promoting and pushing the idea of Pacific Island nationalism. In America, the term Asia-Pacific Islander, or “API” is a popular ethnic catch-all, but, for all it’s utility, the term does a strategic and cultural disservice to the proud and ethnically distinct peoples of Oceania—particularly when China sees real strategic value in blurring the line between nationality and ethnicity. For strategic advantage, the Chinese government would be glad to welcome Pacific Islanders into China’s global diaspora.
On the military side, to prevent a strategic fait accompli, the strong democracies of Oceania will need to respond in a coordinated fashion far faster than they are used to.
A multinational quick-response team offers insurance against a sudden and uncontested Chinese “land-grab.” In the latest round of violence, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were quick to back the Solomon Islands, sending police and military personnel. These worthy efforts should be formalized and scaled-up. And, if China establishes a military base the region or suddenly demands a wider role in regional peacekeeping efforts, America can contribute fast-moving elements of the U.S. Marine Corps or, potentially, move certain American airborne forces into the region.
To prevent surprise, naval and intelligence forces throughout the Indo-Pacific should maintain a daily track on any Chinese forces capable of a sudden amphibious intervention, coordinating with those shadowy folks charged with monitoring Chinese influence operations in vulnerable communities throughout the South Pacific. Armed with a strategic playbook and tactical awareness, it will be far harder for China to succumb to dynastic temptations and live up to the exceptions of present-day norms.
Unfortunately, the United States will be reluctant to take constructive steps forward without serious prodding. In Washington, D.C., solid regional strategy proposals generate little more than a nightmare marathon of interagency meetings and soul-crushing bureaucratic maneuvering. For Americans in government service, the South Pacific is a geopolitically remote posting, defusing ethnic tensions is a thankless long-term diplomatic task and constabulary missions are unpopular with everybody right now. On the military’s part, loud bouts of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over the cost of “forward presence” frees the Pentagon’s short-sighted strategists to focus on “big war” hypersonic fights in the Pacific—battles that will never be fought if China is allowed to sink laws-based order in the Indo-Pacific with impunity, seizing one broken island democracy after another.