Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts China’s Global Island-Hopping Strategy
China’s Global Island-Hopping Strategy

China’s Global Island-Hopping Strategy

Bottom Line

  • China employs similar tactics—economic inducements and threats, as well as the occasional bribe—to forge relationships with island states across the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, and the South Pacific that advance the same economic, military, and diplomatic objectives.
  • Beijing’s construction of logistical facilities within island nations primarily supports the People’s Liberation Army’s efforts to conduct “open seas protection” in defense of the Maritime Silk Road, but also augments the military’s ability to repel US assaults launched from the Pacific island chains.
  • Chinese investment in island states also serves to win those states’ votes in multilateral organizations, thereby expanding voting blocs that endorse China’s illiberal initiatives and norms.

Not since the Cuban missile crisis have island nations played such critical pieces on the geopolitical chessboard. Recent intelligence leaks, for example, reveal that China is planning to construct a signals intelligence facility in Cuba in order to monitor the activity of the US Southern Command. This revelation comes after Washington launched a Pacific Partnership Strategy in 2022 to counter China’s hegemonic aspirations in the South Pacific, and secured new “Compacts of Free Association” with two Pacific Island states in May to expand US military access and overall influence in the region.

But in responding to China’s overtures to island nations, Washington should avoid operating under the erroneous assumption that Beijing seeks only to dominate the South Pacific and fortify its relations with autocratic regimes like Cuba.

A closer examination of China’s global activity suggests that Beijing uses island nations worldwide to serve its ambitions. Indeed, Beijing employs similar tactics—economic inducements and threats, as well as the occasional bribe—to forge relationships with island states across the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, and the South Pacific that fulfill the same strategic objectives. To wit, Beijing’s construction of logistical facilities within island nations primarily supports the PLA’s efforts to conduct “open seas protection” in defense of the Maritime Silk Road, but also augments the army’s ability to repel US assaults launched from the Pacific island chains. Preferential lending practices to island states likewise aim to co-opt those states’ votes in multilateral organizations, thereby expanding voting blocs that endorse China’s illiberal initiatives and norms. Their small size notwithstanding, island nations advance Beijing’s economic, military, and diplomatic initiatives worldwide, underscoring their critical—and hitherto underappreciated—role in Chinese foreign policy.

Securing the Silk Road

China’s growing presence in island nations advances its mission to safeguard the Maritime Silk Road, as island-based logistical facilities constructed therein would provide Chinese military vessels with platforms from which they can secure strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Although no Chinese leader has remarked that island nations serve this purpose, authoritative government strategy documents exhort policymakers to create overseas strong points for the defense of China’s economic interests abroad. “To address deficiencies in overseas operations and support,” China’s 2019 Defense White Paper reads, “[the PLA] develops overseas logistical facilities,” which serve the core mission of “maintain[ing] the security of strategic SLOCs.” By establishing two Silk Road “blue economic passages” traversing the South China Sea-to-South Pacific and Indian Ocean-to-Mediterranean Sea SLOCs, the Chinese State Council has provided geographic direction for the establishment of these overseas facilities. As such, there is a strategic imperative to secure port access along these economic passages, and seeing as island nations are the predominant natural land features within them, it follows that island nations would be the primary focus of this race for overseas logistical facilities.

The blue economic passage bearing SLOCs through the South China Sea to the South Pacific is the target of this island-hopping strategy and its component goal of enhancing Chinese economic security. Through state-owned banks and enterprises, Beijing has over the past twelve years invested upwards of $3 billion in the region to finance commercial infrastructure projects, many of which are mandated by Chinese law to accommodate PLA vessels and operations. The only fully realized example of this strategy to date is that of the Solomon Islands, where a March 2022 bilateral security pact and bribes paid to leading policymakers enabled the construction of a port in Honiara by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, which Western analysts assert can accommodate PLA ships. But China’s economic statecraft has touched other strategically positioned island nations, including Vanuatu, where China holds half the nation’s sovereign debt and has made attempts to build a military base in close proximity to US ally Australia. Consider, too, Kiribati, a nation straddling trans-pacific sea lanes, where China is planning to revitalize an airstrip that will extend the PLA’s power projection capabilities into the South Pacific. By constructing dual-use commercial facilities across the Pacific Islands, Beijing is laying the infrastructural groundwork to support expeditionary forces that protect Chinese economic interests from foreign militaries and non-state security threats.

Although the Indian Ocean is the commercial lifeline of the Chinese economy, China has failed to develop dual-use facilities in the region largely due to Indian countermeasures. New Delhi has maintained a sphere of influence over its maritime environs, and to blunt Beijing’s growing naval presence, has recently strengthened ties with the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius. Independent assessments from US government agencies as well as recent Chinese interactions with these states do suggest, however, that Beijing is intent on acquiring some degree of military access within island nations to secure its most critical energy supply lines against interdiction by strategic competitors, principally the United States and India.

The Department of Defense has found, for example, that China has considered establishing a “PLA military logistics facility” in the Seychelles, and that Mauritius could cede its Chagos Island due to Beijing’s financial leverage over the country. Acquiring the island would provide the PLA with a logistical facility just miles from the UK-US Diego Garcia airbase and within striking distance of the Indian military outpost in Mauritius, significantly bolstering Chinas forward defense perimeter. Seeing as the PLA currently lacks “wide-area air defense and sophisticated antisubmarine warfare capabilities” to defend its warships in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), as a recent Brookings report found, China may conclude that these island-based platforms are its only feasible option for sustaining its expeditionary forces until it acquires these advanced defensive capabilities. Island outposts also have utility for espionage: in 2017, for example, China’s State Oceanic Administration signed an agreement with the Maldives to construct a “Joint Ocean Observation Station,” which, before being snuffed out by pressure from New Delhi, could have provided China with an intelligence collection facility in a region of the world where it critically lacks this capability. Absent Indian intervention, therefore, China could turn its commercial footholds within island nations into strategic assets to protect sea lanes that bear the goods upon which China’s economy depends. 

Though not lying within established routes of the maritime silk road, the Caribbean has received Chinese direct investment because of its geostrategic value as a transshipment point between the Panama Canal and Atlantic sea lanes to Europe and South America. China’s $8 billion trade relationship with Caribbean island nations, $314 billion trading relationship with South America, and dependency on Brazilian energy exports create a strategic imperative for the construction of secure island-based seaports across the region.

The China Harbor Engineering Company’s $500 million port construction project in Trinidad and Tobago designed to facilitate natural gas exports, as well as China Merchant Port Holdings multi-billion dollar buyout of the Port of Kingston in Jamaica, indicate that Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are leading a region-wide effort to bolster the infrastructure underpinning the Caribbean’s commercial activity. Beijing’s SOEs have also invested and acquired majority equity stakes in Cuban and Bahamian ports, worrying American officials because of the PLA’s past port calls to Havana and the potential for the facilities in Grand Bahama and Abaco to accommodate its vessels. Indeed, as the Commander of the US Southern Command Gen. Laura Richardson testified before the House Armed Services Committee, such ports have “potential dual-use for malign commercial and military activities,” including being leveraged by China “to restrict US naval and commercial ship access” in the event of Sino-American conflict. Recently leaked US intelligence documents revealing that the PLA Navy is seeking access to a Nicaraguan port on the Caribbean Sea lend credibility to this notion that China is actively undercutting US naval primacy in its own backyard. In this context, China’s construction and acquisition of strategically situated ports throughout the Caribbean islands likely serves to expand its commercial interests in the Western Hemisphere and lay the groundwork for the projection of Chinese military power to safeguard those interests.

Enhancing Strategic Depth

China’s island hopping not only serves the economic security goals of the “open seas protection” strategy, as outlined in China’s Military Strategy of 2015, but also the PLA’s mission to protect the Chinese mainland from US military incursions. In line with the 2006 Chinese Defense Strategy’s admonition to expand the “strategic depth for offshore defensive operations,” China has constructed – or attempted to construct – dual-use facilities in peripheral islands to extend the defense perimeter separating China’s urban centers on its eastern seaboard from the forward deployed forces of the United States that threaten those centers.

The Biden Administration’s efforts to disperse the US military’s Indo-Pacific force posture has complicated China’s plans to repel attacks launched from the Pacific island chains using its land-attack and anti-ship missile defense systems. The construction of dual-use facilities in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Kiribati, therefore, would advance PLA forces to a position where they can outflank US forces stationed farther north in Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the waters in between. In particular, these PLA bases and airstrips would expand the range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, enabling strikes against the US and Australian navies before they could respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. With Australia positioned to deploy nuclear submarines within the next two decades, Chinese logistical facilities in island nations northeast of Australia would also help the PLA restrict those vessels’ access to SLOCs traveling from Oceania to the North Pacific.

On top of these enhancements to the PLA’s conventional capabilities, these forward bases would also provide venues for conducting signals intelligence collection against America’s Five Eyes partners, principally Australia and New Zealand. That the Australian intelligence community already deems the Solomon Islands’ construction of Huawei telecommunication infrastructure a security risk underscores the severity of the threat posed to US and allied nations by any formal Chinese signals intelligence stations in the South Pacific. Through coercive economic policy and elite capture, China is co-opting island nations into its aggressive defense policy, the fundamental objective of which is to expel the US military from China’s maritime periphery.

Sinicizing Global Governance

The robust direct investment in island nations that affords Beijing greater economic security and power projection capabilities also serves its campaign to revise international norms, laws, and institutions in line with its national interests and illiberal values. Chinese investments – and the corresponding threat of Chinese divestment—provide strong financial incentives for island states to accept China’s erosion of the human rights regime and the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan.

China co-opts the votes of island states in international organizations to lend legitimacy to its principle of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of sovereign states—a legalism frequently invoked by China to deflect criticism of its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as its efforts to annex Taiwan. Comoros and Cuba, for example, voted with a pro-Beijing bloc at the United Nations to defend China’s mass repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, in the process amplifying the CCP propaganda line that any criticism of Xinjiang affairs was “politicizing human rights issues.” In 2020, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda joined the aforementioned island states to support a national security law in Hong Kong that would subjugate the city to Beijing’s autocratic rule. Because each of these nations received millions in direct Chinese investment, these voting patterns suggest that China deploys foreign aid to acquire greater voting power in international organizations and ensure success in its diplomatic initiatives.

Moreover, China has eroded Taiwan’s international recognition by offering economic inducements to the few remaining island states that still recognize Taipei, in some cases promising hundreds of millions of dollars if they switch recognition to Beijing, which occurred with the Solomon Islands in 2019. Once characterized as the last defenders of Taiwan’s tenuous legal claim to sovereignty, the island nations of the South Pacific and Caribbean have gradually turned to Beijing, further isolating Taiwan.

Time For a Course-Correction

Although the United States and its allies have rekindled their commitments to key Pacific Island states, China’s global island-hopping strategy still does not confront a Western initiative commensurate in scope or influence. There is a growing strategic imperative for such a Western strategy, as evidenced by the new security threat in Cuba. American policymakers should understand that these tactical moves in the Caribbean—and those in other key maritime domains—belie the reality that Beijing employs a transregional strategy to advance its global agenda using island states. In formulating its China strategy, the Biden Administration must recognize that Beijing courts island nations to enhance its economic security, legitimize its illiberal conception of human rights, and strengthen the PLA as it prepares for conflict with the United States.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Trent A. Henry)