US and China Vie for Influence in the Pacific through Regional Media

In the ongoing power struggle between the United States and China in the Pacific region, regional media has emerged as a significant battleground. The US has declared its commitment to supporting “free media” while cautioning against Beijing’s efforts to manipulate information worldwide.

During a recent visit to countries in the Indo-Pacific, Elizabeth Allen, the US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, emphasized Washington’s focus on “prioritizing the support of independent media” across the region. Speaking to The Guardian in Sydney, Allen expressed that this support would manifest in various forms, with the US actively seeking partnerships with media outlets in the Pacific.

Allen stressed the importance of independent media, stating that it is “critical to any democracy.” She added, “We’re certainly looking to partner with media sectors across the region and provide them with more support.”

This development takes place within a broader context of the competition for influence between the US and China in the Pacific. While the US has faced criticism for its absence in the Pacific partnership for many years, it has recently increased its engagement by opening embassies, conducting high-level visits, and expanding its presence in the region.

The US has already been providing access to wire services like the Associated Press to newsrooms in several Pacific countries. Allen reiterated the US’s commitment to promoting independent journalism, which could involve initiatives to ensure access to objective and editorially sound information, akin to services like AP and AFP wire services.

Allen’s visit coincides with growing concerns about China’s ambitions in the Pacific. In 2022, Beijing’s security pact with Solomon Islands raised alarms among Western nations. In May, the US signed a defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea, a strategically significant country just north of Australia.

In September, US President Joe Biden hosted a summit with Pacific leaders, pledging increased aid to the region. However, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, now closely aligned with China, skipped the talks and called for a change in the US’s approach to engaging with Pacific leaders, urging them to avoid “lecturing.” Chinese President Xi Jinping has maintained that his country’s outreach to Pacific nations is based on respect for their “sovereignty and independence.”

Shailendra Singh, Head of Journalism at the University of the South Pacific, emphasized the central role of media in the power contest in the region. He noted that countries competing for influence are actively courting the media to sway the opinions of Pacific citizens, as this can influence government decisions to some extent.

Earlier this year, several newspapers in Solomon Islands were accused of compromising their independence in exchange for resources from China, underscoring China’s active involvement in the region. Singh pointed out that while China has been very active in this regard, both Canberra and Washington have been somewhat slower to engage.

During Allen’s visit, which included stops in Fiji and Vanuatu, she launched the Pacific hub for the Digital Communications Network (DCN), an NGO supported by the US State Department. The DCN is described as a collaborative platform addressing challenges to democracy and the information space.

Misinformation and disinformation were highlighted as global problems. Allen stressed that no country, including the United States, is immune to these issues. While she didn’t name specific countries manipulating information or influencing Pacific media, she referred to a recent report published by the US State Department, which outlined Beijing’s tactics to manipulate information, including propaganda, disinformation, and censorship.

Singh pointed out that the small media systems in the Pacific face several challenges, such as lagging in emerging technologies and vulnerability to disinformation and manipulation. He suggested that the US has a role to play in supporting free media in the Pacific to counter illiberalism and uphold democracy.

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