Why China is challenging Australia for influence over the Pacific Islands

(CNN)With beaches fringed with palm trees and pristine waters full of tropical fish, many Pacific Islands are the kinds of remote places you would expect to see on Instagram.

But for China and Australia, these tiny islands have become the center of an emerging power struggle.
    Foreign involvement is nothing new for these islands, which collectively control an area of ocean bigger than Russia. Colonial governments ruled some of the 14 Pacific Island nations over different periods of time. They all now govern themselves but, due to poor economic growth, this is one of the world's most aid-dependent regions.
    For decades, Australia has been the biggest donor of that aid. In many ways, that makes sense -- Australia is the richest nation in Oceania and nearly 206,700 people claimed Pacific Island ancestry in its 2016 census. As the country's Prime Minister Scott Morrison puts it: "This is our patch."
    But in recent years, China has emerged as a major player in the region, too.
    The Pacific Islands are home to fewer than 10 million people -- slightly less than the population of Sweden -- are thousands of miles from Beijing and have a combined GDP of about $33.77 billion, less than 1% of China's total GDP.
    But that hasn't stopped the money flooding in, building bridges, roads and an airport.
    In Australia, some analysts fear their country's influence is under threat.
    "Australia is certainly very worried about the level of investment (from China)," said Michael O'Keefe, an expert on Pacific foreign relations at Melbourne's La Trobe University.
    Prime Minister Morrison has made the Pacific Islands more of a priority than his predecessors since he came to power last year. As he announced a 2 billion Australian dollar ($1.5 billion) infrastructure fund for the region in November, he said: "Australia cannot take its influence in the Southwest Pacific for granted.
    "And sadly, I think too often we have."
    So why is China investing so much in this part of the world?

    First thing's first: What's China doing in the South Pacific?

    In many ways, China is doing things differently.
    In the past, Australia has taken what some see as a paternalistic approach in the Pacific Islands, investing in health, education and governance -- the things it thinks the nations need.
    But the approach hasn't necessarily had the desired impact. Although Australia -- and other countries -- have been investing aid in the region for years, economic growth is slow. That's partly due to the geographic isolation of the islands and their small populations, but has been worsened by their vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.
    In most Pacific Island countries, more than 20% of the population is unable to afford all their basic needs, according to the World Bank.
    That has prompted questions about the effectiveness of aid.
    In papers in 2003 and 2010, Australian economist Helen Hughes said that "aid has failed in the Pacific," because it undercut the private sector, impacting employment and economic growth. But Australian economist Matthew Dornan and Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, argued in 2017 that aid has raised "living standards beyond what they would be without aid." The Lowy Institute is a non-profit Australian think tank set up in 2003, which receives half of its funding from donations.