US-Pacific Relations: Pacific-Minded

The World Today Published 1 April 2011 Updated 10 March 2020 4 minute READ

Cleo Paskal

Former Associate Fellow, Environment and Society Programme and Asia-Pacific Programme

But the fault does not lie completely with the US, and the win is not completely China’s. The door for China’s dramatic increase in influence in the island nations of the Pacific was opened by decades of mismanagement of Pacific affairs by western allies Australia and New Zealand. And if the US and the west want to regain ground, the two Pacific partners are going to have to rethink how they engage with the region.

It should not have come to this. As Clinton noted, the island nations of the Pacific are natural Western allies. “We have a lot of support in the Pacific Ocean region. A lot of those small countries have voted with us in the United Nations (UN), they are stalwart American allies, they embrace our values. ”The tiny Kingdom of Tonga, population of 100,000, for example, has just sent troops to Afghanistan.

Also, from a realpolitik point of view, the region has quite a bit to offer. Far from being a bottomless pit of development aid, the Pacific is important economically, politically, and strategically.

Economically, while landmass and population maybe small, maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZ) are enormous. The Republic of Kiribati, for example, only has a population of around 100,000, but its EEZ is the size of India. That is a lot of increasingly valuable fisheries and seabed resources. Exploration in Tonga’s EEZ is showing high-grade deposits of gold and silver. And ExxonMobil has begun drilling for natural gas in Papua New Guinea.

Politically, the region represents around a dozen votes in international fora. The importance of those votes was recently on show. Discontent in the regionis currently running so high, not only is China making quick political gains, so is the Arab League. It was the votes from the Pacific that ensured the headquarters for the new International Renewable Energy Agency would be in Abu Dhabi, not in Germany. And the UN votes of Fiji, among other Pacific nations, may have played a critical role in scuppering Canada’s chances at a Security Council seat.

Strategically, this vast area is the frontline between Asia and the Americas. It is criss crossed by increasingly important trade routes linking Asia and South America, as well as vitally important transpacific fiber optic cables. It hosts geostrategic military bases. It has safe harbours in allied hands. Especially as China moves down through the South China Sea, keeping the countries of the Pacific safe, stable and friendly is going to be crucial for Western security.

The importance of the Pacific is starting to be widely understood. In a two-week period last September, eight military delegations visited Tonga alone, including ones from the US, Britain, New Zealand,Australia, France and India. China sent two warships for a multiday visit. In November, Admiral Michael Mullen, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, droppedby.

Unfortunately for the west, the challenges to the Pacific partnership are too deep to be solved with a flying visit. The current crop of problems mostly dates back to the end of the Cold War. As the Soviet sphere contracted and imploded, the Pacific seemed to lose its strategic value. The diplomatic and strategic forward bases of the ‘Big Boys’, the US and Britain, were scaled back, or shut down, and the security ofthe region was essentially outsourced to Australia and New Zealand. Around five years ago, Britain closed its High Commissions in Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga. The then British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the strategic handover more or less official by describing New Zealand as “a friend in this region who can help and advise us on the regional issues.”

On paper, Australia and New Zealand seem up to the job. Their influence is seemingly pervasive. Currently in Tonga for example, it is hard to find a government ministry with no Australian or New Zealand advisors in it. The Commissioner of Police is a New Zealander, as was main the economic advisor to the recently replaced Prime Minster.

The upcoming batch of around a dozen Australian Youth Ambassadors are scheduled to be placed in positions that will give them access to highly sensitive government information, including in the Ministries of Justice, Health, Finance and National Planning. The banks are branches of Australian and New Zealand companies. Most flights to and from the country go via Auckland or Sydney. There are large Tongan communities in both counties, and they are the default locations for medical treatment and higher education.

At the same time,there is a deep ambivalence in the general Tongan population towards China. There are an estimated one thousand Chinese in Tonga. Most have arrived in the last decade (under Australia and New Zealand’s watch), and now run the vast majority of the corner shops. There are frequent run-ins with the local population and, in February, the Commerce and Industries Minister called the Chinese business community in for a chat in which he said “Whether rightly or wrongly, many Tongan businesses perceive the Chinese as being corrupt […] I have to ask you to stop it. It doesn’t help any of us.” And yet still the West is losing influence and China is gaining traction. Why?

Part of the problem lies in Australia and New Zealand’s confused approach to the Pacific. Since the end of the Cold War, there was an assumption that the Pacific was their backyard, and would stay that way. So the main focus seems to have been economics, not security. Tonga, for example, signed on to the WTO under conditions that Oxfam called “appalling”. New Zealand was a member of the working group that negotiated the terms. With the Tongan inability to put in place effective tariffs, New Zealand products flooded in. Meanwhile New Zealand biohazard standards keep out Tongan produce. Tongan agriculture crashed. New Zealand helped its neighbour by bringing in Tongan migrantlabour as seasonal workers for New Zealand farms.

While these policies may have brought new markets to New Zealand products and cheap workers to New Zealand farms, the detrimental effect on the Pacific was hard to ignore, even by its own architects. In December, the New Zealand government released its Inquiry into New Zealand’s relationship with South Pacific countries. It begins by noting that: “New Zealand’s development efforts have yielded disappointing results. In the twenty years since relationships with Pacific countries were last reviewed, conditions in many Pacific islands have deteriorated.”

Similarly, Australia and New Zealand’s political engagement in the region has been problematic, with American Samoa’s member of the US Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, describing it as “inept policies and heavy-handed actions”. Their handling of the Fiji coup pushed Fiji firmly into the China camp. In Tonga they backed a ‘pro-democracy’ movement that burned down around eighty percent of the capital in 2006. To compound the problem,they then watched as China jumped in with soft loans for the reconstruction. When I subsequently asked a Tongan negotiator for the Copenhagen climate talks how they would vote, I was bluntly told, “Whatever China says, we owe them hundreds of millions”.

In our multipolar world, when one weakens one’s friends, one weakens oneself. And it seems as though forthe last little while, Australian and New Zealand policies have weakened the Pacific. The narrow focus on primarily short-term economic benefits to certain nations has to stop. The Pacific is no longer their backyard; it is the new frontline.

The US, Britain and maybe even Five Eyes ally Canada, need to join Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific nations themselves in re-evaluating how the west can effectively engage in the Pacific, and so transform the island states from geopolitical and economic pawns into secure castles of stability and prosperity.

This is entirely possible, but the discussions between friends needs to be open and direct about starting points and desired outcomes. For example, while the US may be concerned about competition with China, Australia may see things differently. In her speech to the US Congress in March, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “there is no reason for Chinese prosperity to detract from prosperity in Australia, th eUnited States or anywhere in the world.”

China’s rise has indeed been good for resource rich Australia, with China now accounting for around 25 percent of Australian exports. Australia exports substantially more to China than it imports. The opposite is true for the US. Similarly, for Australia it maybe that economics are still given more weight in Pacific affairs than strategic concerns, while forthe US that may not be the case. These discussions need to be had so that, moving forward, friends are walking in step through the coming geopolitical minefield, not tripping over each other’s feet. And the pace needs to be set by the Pacific nations themselves.

The nations of the Pacific really do not need much to be secure, stable partners of the west. Secretary Clinton commented that China flew leaders of Pacific nations to Beijing and “wined them and dined them. ”Perhaps it is time for the US (and Britain) to treat leaders of these independent nations with the same respect, rather than handle them through proxies who carry their own baggage into any exchange. If the US offered Tonga fair access to its markets for Tongan agricultural products, low interestloans, a few academic scholarships, and direct flights to Los Angeles or San Francisco, the costs to the US would be minor and Tonga would not need China.

The Pacific is the west’s to lose. And we have been doing a good job of it. It is up to us to say “no more”.