The Japan Forum on International Relations

April 03,2024

The “Blue Pacific” and U.S.–China Confrontation
Yoko Ogashiwa

Since the mid 2010s, the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional organization, has been attempting to establish a regional order named the “Blue Pacific,” in Oceania, which has garnered attention as one of the focal points in the ongoing U.S.-China confrontation. The likely background to this is the transformation of the regional order in Oceania due to factors internal and external to the region.

In the late 1990s, disagreements over climate change caused a rift between the Pacific Island Countries and Australia and New Zealand, causing the cohesive power of the Pacific Islands Forum, which comprises these countries, to decline. Simultaneously, as the regional order, which had been based on cooperation between the Pacific Island countries, Australia, and New Zealand through the Pacific Islands Forum, was shaken, China approached the former, triggering further changes. China’s efforts to expand its influence in the Pacific Island Countries through economic assistance and military cooperation has made the regional order in Oceania even more fluid.

Against this backdrop, the “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent,” announced by the Pacific Islands Forum in 2019, asserts that the Pacific Islands are the custodians of the “Blue Pacific Continent.” It aims to promote regional cooperation in the seven areas of political leadership and regionalism, people-centered development, peace and security, resources and economic development, climate change and disasters, ocean and environment, and technology and connectivity. The inclusion of climate change and natural disasters a s well as other claims made by the Pacific Island Countries in the “Blue Pacific” may reflect a heightened diplomatic stance of these countries toward Australia and New Zealand due to China’s approach. Further, for Australia and New Zealand, the “Blue Pacific” seems to have been intended as a means to mend the rift over climate change with the Pacific Island Countries regaining influence in the face of China’s emergence.

It could be said that such opportunities for Pacific Island countries made apparent in the “Blue Pacific,” are being extended by further action from China. In April 2022, China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, while in May it attempted to conclude a regional security agreement with ten Pacific Island Countries with which it has diplomatic relations. Whilst the latter attempt was unsuccessful, the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, becoming more wary of Chinese actions, formed the “Partners in the Blue Pacific” in June of the same year, thus clarifying their stance against China through support for the “Blue Pacific” (subsequently, Canada, Germany, and South Korea also joined this group). In September of the same year, the United States held a summit meeting with Pacific Island Countries, adopted the “Declaration on U.S. Pacific Partnership,” and announced the “Pacific Partnership Strategy,” which calls for support for the “Blue Pacific.” China’s efforts to expand its influence have motivated Western assistance to the Pacific Island Countries.

Meanwhile, the risks for the Pacific Island Countries should be pointed out. For example, while Western countries have framed the “Blue Pacific” as a strategic part of the “Indo-Pacific” to counter China, a cautious view persists among Pacific Island Countries that they will be drawn into the U.S.-China confrontation. As China attempts to expand its influence and Western countries respond by increasing their support for the “Blue Pacific,” Pacific Island Countries become more likely to get caught in the vortex of U.S.-China confrontation. It is no easy task for the Pacific Island Countries, which lack diplomatic power, to expand their opportunities while distancing themselves from the U.S.-China confrontation.