SYDNEY—The United States, Australia, France, and UK will open new embassies in the Pacific, boost staffing levels, and engage with leaders of Pacific island nations more often in a bid to counter China’s rising influence in the region, people familiar with the situation have told Reuters.

The battle for influence in the sparsely populated Pacific matters because each of the tiny island states has a vote at international forums such as the United Nations. They also control vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.

China has spent $1.3 billion on concessionary loans and gifts since 2011 to become the Pacific’s second-largest donor after Australia, stoking concern in the West that several tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt to Beijing.

In response, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States say they will increase economic aid and expand their diplomatic presence to countries in the region, government officials and diplomats told Reuters.

“We are concerned about Chinese practices that lead to unsustainable debt,” according to a U.S. government source with direct knowledge of Washington’s plan for the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. official said Washington needs to have adequate representation in Pacific countries to let their governments know what options were open to them, and the consequences of taking offers from elsewhere.

Representatives for the governments of Australia, Britain, France, and the United States in Canberra didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Washington aims to boost diplomatic staffing numbers in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and potentially Fiji within the next two years, the U.S. government source said.

Australia’s government is expected to name its first high commissioner to Tuvalu within weeks, rushing to fill a post that Canberra decided on establishing only several months ago, a government source told Reuters. He declined to be identified as he isn’t authorized to talk to the media.

Britain will open new high commissions in Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa by the end of May 2019, while French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to organize a meeting of Pacific leaders early next year, diplomatic and government sources told Reuters.

Earlier this month, Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva sought support from other governments in the region to make a coordinated request for China to forgive mounting debts. The Pacific leader then abruptly backed down after Beijing complained about the plan.

Palau and Tuvalu both recognize Taiwan. Though Taiwan is a self-ruled island, Beijing claims it is a renegade province that will one day be reunited with the mainland. China has pressured many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to drop ties with the island in an effort to push its “one China” principle.

China isn’t only offering funds to build influence. By the end of 2018, Fiji expects to receive a Chinese hydrographic vessel that can map the seabed, Viliame Naupoto, the head of Fiji’s armed forces, told Reuters. It will be the first military gift to a Pacific nation from China, and Western diplomats see that as an attempt by Beijing to curry favor with Fiji, one of the region’s larger economies.

By Colin Packham

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Categories: Asia & Pacific World