Foreign Policy Watch: Indo-Pacific and QUAD

China’s growing footprint in the Pacific Islands


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : PIC

Mains level : Indo-Pacific

Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of China, is currently on an eight-day visit to ten Pacific Island Countries (PICs) after the MoU failed to gain consensus among the PICs.

What are the PICs?

  • The Pacific Island Countries are a cluster of 14 states which are located largely in the tropical zone of the Pacific Ocean between Asia, Australia and the Americas.
  • They include Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
  • The islands are divided on the basis of physical and human geography into three distinct parts — Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

Geo-economics of PICs

  • The islands are very small in land area, and are spread wide across the vast equatorial swathe of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Even being the smallest and least populated states, they have some of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the world.
  • Large EEZs translate into huge economic potential due to the possibility of utilising the wealth of fisheries, energy, minerals and other marine resources present in such zones.
  • Hence, they prefer to be identified as Big Ocean States, rather than Small Island States.
  • In fact, Kiribati and FSM, both PICs, having EEZs larger than that of India.

Strategic significance

  • PICs have played an important role in major power rivalry as springboards for power projection and laboratories for developing and demonstrating strategic capabilities.
  • The major powers of the colonial era competed with each other to gain control over these strategic territories.
  • The Pacific islands also acted as one of the major theatres of conflict during the Second World War — between imperial Japan and the US.
  • Due to the remoteness of these islands from major population centres of the world, some of the major nuclear weapon test sites of the US, UK and France were located here.
  • In addition, the 14 PICs account for as many number of votes in the United Nations, and act as a potential vote bank for major powers to mobilise international opinion.

China’s vested interests in PIC

  • China does not have any particular historical linkages to the PICs unlike the Western powers.
  • Therefore, its interest in the PICs is of relatively recent origin, and is linked to China’s rise in the past few decades.
  • The PICs lie in the natural line of expansion of China’s maritime interest and naval power.
  • They are located beyond China’s ‘First Island Chain’, which represents the country’s first threshold of maritime expansion.
  • The PICs are located geostrategically in what is referred to by China as its ‘Far Seas’.
  • Their control will make Chinese Blue Water Navy capable, an essential prerequisite, for becoming a superpower in maritime domain.

For the Taiwan narrative

  • China is preparing for what seems like an inevitable military invasion of Taiwan, sooner or later.
  • In this context, it becomes important to break Western domination of island chains of the Pacific.
  • This could otherwise impede reunification.
  • Wooing the PICs away from the West and Taiwan will therefore make the goal of Taiwan’s reunification easier for China.
  • Currently, only four PICs have recognised Taiwan. They are Tuvalu, Palau, Marshall Islands and Nauru.

What are the implications of China’s latest move?

  • China has increasingly started talking about security cooperation in addition to its economic diplomacy towards the PICs.
  • In April 2022, China signed a controversial security deal with the Solomon Islands, which raised regional concerns.
  • The PICs as a collective did not agree to China’s extensive and ambitious proposals, and therefore China failed to get a consensus on the deal.

Why did the PICs refuted China?

  • PICs perceived that they could have negative implications for the sovereignty and unity of PICs and may drag them into major power conflicts in the future.
  • Some have argued that China has acted too boldly and has therefore met with such a debacle.
  • China might have also miscalculated the regional reaction, perhaps led by a monolithic understanding of the PICs after seeing Solomon Islands’ positive response earlier this year.

A caution for the world

  • China can always come back with improvised plan (rather bigger lollipop) which is more acceptable and use it to further pursue its final objectives incrementally.
  • Moreover, this debacle does not stop China from pursuing bilateral deals of similar nature.


  • The intensification of China’s diplomacy in PICs have made the powers who have traditionally controlled the regional dynamics like the US and Australia more cautious.
  • The US has started revisiting its diplomatic priority for the region ever since the China-Solomon Islands deal.
  • The role played by the US in mobilising opposition against China’s proposed deal could not be ruled out.


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