The New Front Line: China Setting Parameters of Engagement in the Pacific

Cleo Paskal

We are going back to the late 1930s, and no grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific will work without getting it right in the Pacific Islands. Otherwise, the region’s people will suffer tremendously, like in the Second World War. That is why there is incredible effort coming from Beijing to ensure we do not have room to operate.

Do you think Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy offers a substantial framework for Canada to improve its engagement with Pacific Island nations, especially those of which China is seeking to have more influence? Are there any areas that could be improved, or missed opportunities?

It is an impressive and strong document, which has much to commend in it, and it is clear a lot of people worked hard on it. Nonetheless, it tends to have an issue that many Indo-Pacific strategies have, in that, it prioritizes the coasts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and jumps over the middle section, which is where the Pacific Islands are. If you are going to get from Canada to countries like Japan and South Korea, they need to be secure. Unfortunately, that has not been substantially incorporated into the strategy.

There are three references to the Pacific Islands, all of which are placed in a multilateral context. For example, the idea of going to Fiji is a result of the multilateral Pacific Island Forum being headquartered there. Additionally, the strategy seeks engagement with the Partners in the Blue Pacific – another multilateral organization – and with Hawaii, which is an interesting inclusion, because it means further coordination with the United States Indo-Pacific Command. However, there is little discussion about bilateral engagements, which is what the inhabitants of Pacific Island countries want.

Each country has different circumstances. Tuvalu has 12,000 people, and Papua New Guinea has a larger population and landmass than New Zealand and is very complex and multicultural. Unfortunately, there is no direct Canadian engagement with these countries, but there are ways that we can uniquely cooperate with them. For example, students in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna can study in Quebec for the same fees as Quebec students. There is also a potential bridge for working with First Nations communities like the Haida, who may have linkages with Pacific Island peoples – it is a familial relationship that can be built upon.

China has allegedly interfered in Canada’s federal elections by funding several candidates in 2019. Since you previously discussed Beijing’s non-kinetic political warfare in the Indo-Pacific, I was wondering if you could comment on China’s actions in Canada, and how they compare to their activities in Pacific Island nations?

Political warfare assaults by the Chinese Communist Party in the region have been focused, well-resourced, and based on a good understanding of local dynamics. Their endgame, however, is different from that of the West. China’s primary goal is elite capture, which is what they accomplished in the Solomon Islands. I should emphasize that the vast majority of its population did not want strong ties with Beijing, much less a security deal with them.

The deal is really because of Prime Minister Sogavare, who is deeply unpopular domestically and does not want to hold another election. This security deal is essentially one of protection for Sogavare and Chinese regional interests. It allows the prime minister to ask for Chinese troops to both defend his domestic security situation, which really means putting down pro-democracy opposition and defending Chinese citizens and interests. This case demonstrates an escalation of political warfare to just below the threshold of kinetic action.

Similarly, in the Marshall Islands, two Chinese who became Marshallese almost created a country within a country by buying off members of parliament. For $7,000 for one person and $22,000 for the other, they nearly brought down the Marshallese government through the politicians they bought off. There is a spectrum from capturing the local elite to potentially creating a civil war within small countries like the Solomon Islands. When authoritarian regimes in these island countries call on Chinese troops to protect their political positions, it only furthers China’s hold on the region. Now, while our Indo-Pacific strategy focuses on the region’s edges, Beijing knows it has to control the middle to push the U.S. back to Hawaii, which is part of its Indo-Pacific grand strategy.

You stated recently that there is little chance democratic allies can out-donate China. Could you elaborate on this? Do you think the West has the political will, resources, and capacity to compete with China for influence in the Indo-Pacific?

We are letting China set the parameters for engagement. In the Solomon Islands, China buys off Sogavare and his gang, and when the Australians engage, they try and one-up Beijing’s offers. For example, if China delivers weapons, Australia will offer weapons. By doing this, we play in China’s field, which is neither what Pacific peoples want, nor is our strength. Instead, we should play in accordance with our values of democracy, accountability, human rights, and rule of law. If China buys off politicians, we should be enabling anti-corruption processes to decrease incentives for said politicians to take Chinese money. For instance, if Sogavare and his coterie accept Chinese money and use it to buy Australian real estate, they would know that those assets would be seized on grounds of ‘disproportionate assets’, and they may never get another visa for Australia or New Zealand.

If you play on China’s turf, not only do they have infinite resources, but they also play dirty. They do not care if people die. Additionally, it makes little sense to play on their terms, when we have something better to offer, which the people of the region really want. This also does not cost us much. For example, to counter the developing civil war in Solomon Islands, which China is trying to trigger, the peace treaty signed twenty years ago that includes devolution of power is a good answer.

This is what the locals want, and if you work with them to put it in force as intended, you are fighting political warfare with peacefare, which China is not equipped to engage in. Beijing does not want communities to be stable, secure, and well-knit. They want to create entropy and chaos. So, instead of providing guns like the Chinese, we need to give peace. Consequently, you have a larger constituency within the country, which creates true security and stability.

What is the feasibility of creating an Indo-Pacific charter? Could that reduce domestic division and regional uncertainty?

This harkens to the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which was signed off the coast of Newfoundland. For the British and Americans, this was a vision of what they wanted the world to look like after the Second World War. We should remember that the signing was before the United States joined the Allies, but this document laid the foundation for postwar institutions like the United Nations.

The idea of an Indo-Pacific Charter would be similar and provide a vision of a free and open region that promotes democracy, human rights, data security, etc. It would also have to be led from the region. There is interest from Japan and India in doing this. However, the Ukraine war created divisions in the Indo-Pacific that would make implementing such a charter more difficult at the moment. We are also seeing this happen in the Quad. The priorities of Australia and other Western powers on countering China are now diffusing, which complicates these grand ideas.

Does the Indo-Pacific strategy examine ways for Canada to address the rapid modernization of the PLA, considering our limited capabilities?

I would have liked to see more emphasis on cyber since Canada is pretty good in that sector. It would also be greatly helpful for some of the smaller Pacific Island countries. The digital environment has been heavily targeted by the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. For example, Palau is a target of Chinese organized crime, with the acquiescence of the CCP and PLA. We know that President Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia and Jennifer Anson, the National Security Coordinator of Palau, have talked about a Chinese spy ship going up and down their cables. There is also concern over the use of social media to run influence and political warfare operations. Consequently, if Canada were to step up in the cyber realm, it would be well received.

The Canadian government intends to open its first mission to Fiji to strengthen its engagement with Pacific Island countries. Since we are yet to see how Ottawa will implement this initiative, what resources are necessary to ensure its success?

Put it in another country. Fiji, with its beaches, is like Vienna in the 1930s, with its cafes, where all countries send their diplomats and spies to be diplomatic and spy on each other in a lovely environment. Whoever we send there will likely spend most of their time talking with their counterparts from other Western countries, as opposed to the people of the region. Fiji is home to the Pacific Island Forum and Pacific Island countries do have delegations there, but the people selected to go are not necessarily networked into their own countries and peoples. They also tend to have been pre-vetted as having approved approaches by primarily Australia and New Zealand. Consequently, this is not reflective of what is occurring across the Pacific, and merely sitting in Fiji, no matter how good the diplomat is, will make it difficult to understand what is really going on.

To truly understand the current situation, you need to look at the Pacific map in the late 1930s. China’s actions are similar to that of Imperial Japan, which employed political warfare and the use of force. During the Second World War, the Japanese sphere of influence almost reached Hawaii, which they bombed. Afterwards, the United States and its allies, including Canadians, had to fight back island by island. Currently, Japan is a strong ally and has good relationships with Northern Pacific countries in particular, but China has looked at the old maps and is trying to learn how not to lose. Beijing is now positioning itself to cut off Australia and isolate Japan. This is not hyperbole.

The first place Imperial Japan attacked in the Solomon Islands was Tulagi, because of its strategic location. In 2019, when the Solomon Islands flipped from Taiwan to China, one of the first things Chinese interests did was try to lease Tulagi. We are going back to the late 1930s, and no grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific will work without getting it right in the Pacific Islands. Otherwise, the region’s people will suffer tremendously, like in the Second World War.

That is why there is incredible effort coming from Beijing to ensure we do not have room to operate. This is not a luxury, a sideshow, or even a map periphery. Our maps tend to have the Atlantic in the centre, meaning that the little Pacific islands do not appear sometimes. However, a Pacific-centred map shows this zone that is becoming a front line again. Unless we are prepared, we may witness a repeat of the tragic and avoidable situation that occurred in the 1940s.

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.