Rethinking Threat in China’s South Pacific Presence

Author: Noakes, Stephen1

Published in National Security Journal, 17 March 2021

https://doi.org/10.36878/nsj20210317.05

Download full PDF version – Rethinking Threat in China’s South Pacific Presence (634 KB)

Abstract

This article probes the methodological basis for the determination of China as a threat in the South Pacific. China threat theory contends that the growing Chinese presence in Pacific Island Countries (PICs) poses multifaceted risks. This contention, though premised on sound data regarding the scale and pace of Chinese aid, investment, and military development, has not been properly vetted social scientifically, and plausible alternative explanations for China’s South Pacific policy have not been rigorously tested or evaluated. The article suggests the integration and testing of a range of competing hypotheses in order for future studies to provide a more accurate, holistic picture of any threat China poses, and to better account for the as-yet-mostly unstudied responses of PIC populations and governments to China’s changing regional role.


Introduction

Scholarship on the dangers of China’s global rise has been animated by two competing and incommensurate positions—either China is a threat, or it is not. The former view is grounded in a realist logic of relative gains, and holds that China poses an inherent threat to international order because any advantages associated with its rise necessarily come at the expense of those of others, namely the United States and its allies.1 For those in this camp, the emergence of a strategic rival (in fact, any capable rival—not only China) is intrinsically destabilising, and the zero-sum nature of international politics means it cannot be any other way.2 By contrast, the latter group comprises those whom we might collectively call critics of the so-called China threat hypothesis. Notably, it counts the Beijing central government among its foremost adherents, which time and again across successive generations of state leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to rising peacefully and sees a multipolar world in which China holds a prominent role as both possible and desirable.3 However, it also incorporates a range of other scholarly efforts to test, debunk, or modify the China threat argument from an assortment of empirical, theoretical, and historical angles.4

While opinion is by no means unanimous, the China-as-threat perspective is perhaps the dominant one in the Western world at the time of this writing, and features prominently in the views of thought leaders and policymakers. Influenced heavily by works like those of John Mearsheimer and Christopher Layne, in which China’s benign rise is all but impossible and can at most be only slowed or contained, it has become common in US circles to frame the rivalry in terms of a renewal of Cold War-era bipolarity.5 At times, this tendency comes complete with the scapegoating of China for US misfortunes, as in the case of President Donald Trump blaming China for the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and referring to it publicly as the “China virus.”6 The tone is much the same among the United States’ ‘Five-Eyes’ partners in the Pacific, where China’s aid, investment, and military build-up has increased in recent years. As of late 2020, Australia is experiencing a historic low in its diplomatic ties with China.7 In New Zealand, China ties have cooled considerably under the Labour-led government of Jacinda Ardern from their high-point under the National-led government of John Key, and discussions of untoward Chinese influence in politics animate the news with frequency.8

The central premise of this article is that perceptions of China’s threat to the South Pacific region may be overblown, not because the theory underpinning these is conceptually flawed, but because this theory has remained, in a sense, too theoretical—i.e. it has not been subjected to testing of sufficient breadth, nor has appropriate evidence been presented to warrant concrete conclusions about whether China is a threat, to whom, or how. At the heart of this argument is the Popperian criterion of falsificationism, which holds that social scientific findings must be subject to legitimate opportunities for disconfirmation in order to be credible.9 It is extremely unsurprising that so many perceive China to be a threat when the question of its intentions in the Pacific or elsewhere has not yet been studied in manner that could possibly have led to any other finding. China might well appear more threatening than it actually is because we have not yet applied paradigms capable of yielding confounding data or contrary interpretations of existing data. Until this situation is rectified and potentially exculpatory evidence sees the light of day, China’s threat in the South Pacific will remain primarily a matter of scholarly conjecture.

Of course, any suggestion of confirmation bias carries an implicature that alternative approaches are available, useful, and desirable. This article outlines two possibilities, one premised on domestic Chinese determinants of its foreign policy, and another that distinguishes the interests of Pacific states from those of the two rival super powers, and creating a more nuanced, variegated picture of the intentionality and effect of Chinese behaviour. Together, they comprise an agenda for future research on China’s activities in the Pacific and, as I argue below, serve as a compliment—not a replacement—to the more realism-inspired and geopolitically-oriented theories which lend themselves to threat perceptions and have dominated the literature up until now. The goal is to arrive at a more fully-specified model that takes comprehensive account of the wide range of factors at play and, ultimately, to forge understanding of China’s Pacific presence based on as well-rounded an inquiry as possible.

The remainder of the paper is made up of three main parts. In the section immediately below, I briefly sketch what precisely is meant by China’s growing “presence” in the Pacific over the last fifteen years, focusing in particular on investment, development aid, and military build-up. Next, I explore the primary perspective from which these behaviours have heretofore been studied and enumerate the key explanations and variables identified, including strategic competition with Taiwan, the United States, and other regional players in the Pacific such as Australia and New Zealand, and the “resource thirst” hypothesis. A third section then examines the consequences of this established mode of thinking and suggests two new approaches which, if developed and utilized on future research, could lend greater nuance to the debate over China’s regional rise.

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1 Stephen Noakes is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. Contact by email: s.noakes@auckland.ac.nz