• The Micronesian atoll of Kapingamarangi viewed from a RAAF C-130J Hercules. (Credit: Defence)
    The Micronesian atoll of Kapingamarangi viewed from a RAAF C-130J Hercules. (Credit: Defence)

The Pacific Island countries (PICs) face the most severe and immediate consequences of global climate change. The Tarawa atoll in Kiribati, for example, has a maximum elevation of three meters above sea level. For the 63,000 residents of the island, there is no higher ground to fall back to against worsening storm floods, erosion, and rising sea levels.

The choice is simple, fortify the island through engineering at significant financial cost or do the unthinkable — leave.

Eight Pacific islands already have disappeared and more will follow. As the impact of climate change worsens, the need for mass relocation will increase while migration opportunities remain limited. With few options, PICs are turning toward island building as a solution.

“I firmly believe that island building is going to have to happen,” Mark Stege, Councilman of the Maloelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said.

One town in Tuvalu already has a US$300 million plan to raise the land 10 meters above sea level to build high-density housing. PIC leaders see land reclamation as an option of last resort—one that is costly and appears increasingly necessary. 

Amid this difficult situation, China is well positioned to capitalise on its island-building capabilities to offer PICs a much-needed service, as well as financing. 

Regionally, China dominates the market for land reclamation services. China has provided such services in Malaysia’s Forest City, Sri Lanka’s Port City Colombo, and near the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia. China also has proposed land reclamation projects in Kiribati and Tuvalu.

Land reclamation is expensive and many PICs already have growing debts to China. For example, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu are among the most heavily indebted countries to China in the world.  Exploitive lending practices accompanying future Chinese land reclamation projects can give Beijing even greater influence in the region.

According to China’s ambassador to Vanuatu, Liu Quan, “there is no free lunch” when it comes to Chinese financial assistance. Leaders in Vanuatu seem to understand this expectation, pledging Vanuatu’s support for China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in 2016.

In extreme cases, China’s lending could grant it access to or ownership of strategically significant infrastructure in exchange for repayment. There is little evidence to suggest China is currently pursuing such “debt trap diplomacy” in the Southwest Pacific, but land reclamation provides a clear opportunity to do so in the future. The demand for and high cost of land reclamation projects in the PICs make such projects an ideal vehicle for Chinese economic coercion.

China’s growing influence in the Southwest Pacific has the potential to threaten the allied defence posture in the Western Pacific. Uncooperative or neutral Pacific Island Countries could complicate allied military transit and communication in the region. 

Even more troubling is the possibility that growing Chinese influence will lead to an intelligence or military presence in the Southwest Pacific, expanding China’s power projection capabilities. Cooperative PICs could potentially provide Beijing with a foothold beyond the First Island Chain, increasing the threat to Australia, and diverting the United States’ and allies’ focus from China’s near seas. 

To address this threat, Australia and the US should adopt a three-pronged strategy. 

First, Australia and the US should increase their intelligence gathering in the region to gain a better understanding of Chinese activities.

Second, with improved situational awareness, the allies could engage in regional public diplomacy to highlight Chinese predatory practices, while also providing diplomatic and legal assistance to PICs seeking Chinese land reclamation and infrastructure building services.

Third, Australia and the US should encourage and invest in their private sectors so that companies can provide PICs with the desired island building services.

By limiting the exploitive aspects of China’s lending and providing competing services, Australia and the US can prevent Beijing from using sea level rise as a means of gaining influence in the Southwest Pacific. Ultimately, the allies’ ability to counter non-traditional security threats in the Pacific relies on their ability to organize and integrate capabilities along the continuum of conflict.

Note: Nitya Labh is a research fellow at the Project on International Peace and Security and previously worked as a research assistant for the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Lucas Hauser is a research intern at the Project on International Peace and Security and a Robert M. Gates Scholar at the College of William and Mary.

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