US seeks to counter China in South Pacific, but 'zero-sum' approach won't reverse waning popularity
Published: Mar 15, 2024 11:25 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

The US will open an embassy in Vanuatu "imminently" and is striving to counter "China influence" in the South Pacific, senior US diplomats said on Thursday at a Senate committee hearing, where they repeated the clichéd stigmatization against China's cooperation with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs).

But hyping law enforcement cooperation or "debt trap" claims will not help the US maintain its status, Chinese analysts said, as "zero-sum" is how the US perceives the world but not how the world operates.

Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the US had already opened two of the four new embassies it had announced plans for in the region, according to media reports.

Kritenbrink called China's policing agreements in the Pacific "opaque and deeply concerning" and said countries there should be "careful and cleared eyed" about economic agreements with Beijing, Reuters reported.

Senator James Risch claimed that the US provided food and medicine for PICs while China focuses on "policing deals."

Chen Hong, executive director at the Asia Pacific Studies Centre of East China Normal University, told the Global Times on Friday that such attacks on bilateral cooperation are groundless, as the law enforcement and security cooperation are carried out at the PICs' request.

The PICs are in need of training and upgrading of social governance after independence, yet decades of Western aid did not help them to acquire such capabilities. The practice of directly commissioning foreign officers, such as Australian forces, to enforce the law in PICs is unsustainable and an encroachment of the PICs' sovereignty, Chen continued.

It was the US that sought to implant Western systems into PICs and later deserted the area.

Washington suddenly became interested in this area after China advanced ties with regional countries, expanding investment, training of local medics and technicians, and jointly building key infrastructure, Chen said.

The US has pledged more aid to PICs out of strategic anxiety over China's presence, including $4 billion over five years to advance Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy. But it remains unclear whether the money can be granted and used properly, as analysts warned of the US tradition of lip service.

Another accusation the US frequently wields against China is that it is creating a "debt trap" for other countries, but this is not even worth the time it takes to refute, analysts said. The US claims it does not force regional countries to take sides, while in practice it asks PICs to stay away from development cooperation opportunities with China.

For PICs and their people, the imminent challenge comes from poverty, lack of development and climate change, not some fabricated "threat from China," Chen noted.

China actually welcomes more players to cooperate with PICs and boost regional growth, and the "zero-sum" mentality and attempts to isolate China are the root cause of waning US popularity, analysts said.

At the Thursday hearing, Kritenbrink said the US has been working to help the secessionist Taiwan regional authorities consolidate their so-called "diplomatic ties" with countries in the Pacific island region.

The US and its allies could coerce regional countries to act in favor of the US for a while, but they cannot stop the irreversible trend that PICs will always pursue what brings the most substantial and sustainable benefits, analysts said.