Abe reinforces Pacific relations as China seeks island toeholds

China's maritime expansion goes far beyond repeated intrusions into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, as the nation has been reaching for Pacific island nations, which have thus far been under the influence of the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

China has adopted an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy against US forces, in which it establishes a so-called first island chain that extends from Honshu to Okinawa, past Taiwan and on to the Philippines, and a second island chain that stretches from Guam to Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. Palau and other island countries can be found in between the first and second island chains.

For China, the Pacific island states are strategically vital as they offer anchorage sites for China's warships in the vast Pacific Ocean. On the back of great capital resources, China has been trying to win over local governments of those countries through financial support for constructing government buildings and other public facilities.

Resource development by Chinese firms has also been promoted at a rapid rate in such countries. China also deepened military exchanges with Papua New Guinea and Fiji through reciprocal visits by high-ranking military officials and other actions.

Amid such a situation, relevant countries such as Japan, the United States and Australia feel an increasing sense of caution against China because, should the current situation continue, the Pacific Ocean could become the "sea of China."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose Papua New Guinea as one of his destinations during his first Oceania tour over strong concern regarding China's expansion. At a summit meeting between Abe and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, scheduled for Thursday, they are expected to agree to bilateral cooperation mainly in the development of natural gas.

Abe also is seen to announce that Japan will provide support for building and improving infrastructure in the country through official development assistance programs.

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand have begun taking measures to strengthen maritime security cooperation by setting up a Pacific defence ministers' meeting with Papua New Guinea and other countries last year, in addition to the Pacific Islands Forum, where leaders of Australia, New Zealand and 14 small island countries and territories meet.

The United States launched a fund to preserve the environments in Pacific island nations in March, while also gearing up support from the US Coast Guard for maritime patrol activities by those island countries.