Oceania has discovered itself in the last 15 years as a newly appealing region for world powers. As a matter of fact, right after the Cold War, it loses a bit of its pivotal position upon which many events had hinged, but as China continues to grow, and western countries notice, Oceania has regained increasing attention.
As far as maritime challenges are concerned, we shall proceed keeping in mind that, of the players territorially present here, three are close allies of the US with a good naval capabilities (Japan, 5th largest fleet) and with which the US have an excellent intelligence sharing relationship (the Five eyes –Australia and New Zealand plus UK and Canada); and the opponent (China) to the US’s hegemony which apparently is not willing to put in place aggressive military actions, but through its soft power (i.e. economic and political pressure) is building up a new system of relations. The scope of this debrief is to shed a light on the Pacific Island Countries’ (PICs) maritime issues within the perspective of the US-China contrast.
As shown by the declarations of the Fiji’s ambassador in the US in 2019 at a CSIS event, the PICs are particularly worried about the inconclusiveness of US presidents’ doctrines, both Obama and Trump, which stated indeed a renewed interest for the Pacific, stressed by an active securing of sea lanes as well as by numerous warnings of being careful of the “Chinese debt trap”, but without, in fact, taking any action toward what the PICs really consider to be relevant to their survival. That is, monitoring of polluters and resources plunderers, of climate change issues like the rising sea level and shores erosion: in general, natural disasters, which for PICs are an actual threat, like the cyclone that in February 2018 destroyed both the Parliament of Tonga and $150 million in crops.
Therefore, as put by Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute (an Australian non-profit thinktank mainly based on donations) at the CSIS event, US policymakers’ insensitivity toward PICs may bring about a rapprochement with China. In fact, although the volume of US’s and Australia’s investments in the PICs is yet to be caught up by China, there has been a trend over the years through lending practices, major infrastructure projects for airports and highways (under the OBOR) and much more. From 2011 to 2017, China has committed more than $5.2 billion in investments and granted $518 million (according to the Lowy Institute) to PICs, for sectors like road upgrading (Fiji, $136 million; Papua New Guinea, $85 million), wharf redevelopment (Vanuatu, $85 million) and governmental buildings (Samoa, $52 million). All these projects were generically addressed to by the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific in 2018, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, as “useless buildings”. These words sum up Australia’s concerns over the new level of expenditures in China, reinforced by Prime Minister Morrison’s statements who openly admitted, in 2019, how his country has taken for granted its influence in the Southwest Pacific. It is also true that while China invests millions in road upgrade and critical infrastructure, Australia has spent $219 million to improve medical care, donating drugs and vaccines or promoting initiatives of health education.
At a more meticulous look, the relationship between the PICs and Australia is something more than an economic bond. The PICs are mostly dependent on foreign aid to carry on their political existences and Australia has been obviously attentive of their needs, committing grants, from 2011 to 2017, for about $5.9 billion. For instance: PICs’ maritime security does not merely involve nature-linked issues, but also illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, alongside drug smuggling from Latin America to Australia, which have caused a loss of about $616 million per year. In order to prevent these crimes, twelve of the PICshave agreed to have Australia sent them every three months until 2023 a newly built Guardian-class patrol boat and in 2020 Fiji, Palau, Kiribati and Tonga will receive them. Without an external assistance, these islands would find themselves in a dangerously precarious situation.
The nature of the bond between the PICs and Australia is very different from that between them and China, founded on sheer economic bases. On the other hand, if Australia’s spending on foreign aid continues to dwindle, like it has been doing since 1974 from 0,47% of GDP to 0,22% in 2018, there might begin to blow winds of change. What Australia (and New Zealand to a certain extent) have to be careful of is not to indulge too much in the PICs’ forbearance with unbalanced agreements or sudden and explicit withdrawal, which politically may result in a serious loss of a strategic ally in favor of China, regardless of the several “debt trap” reminders. Unbalanced agreements, like the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus), which is basically a free trade agreement that, given that the PICs’ already have a nearly duty-free access to Australia and New Zealand, will not bring any major change for them, but it will definitely drop tariffs for Australian and New Zealand goods and, as the New Zealand’s government puts it, “[to] “preserve New Zealand’s position against major competitors from outside of the region in the years to come”.
As for the other side of the board, Japan, France and the US too constantly try to reverse these anti-western trends, oftentimes acting in concert, given, after all, their significant past or position in the region. As a matter of fact, France’s largest EEZ worldwide (thanks to its overseas territories, accounting for 97% of its EEZ) gives a broad room for maneuvers which are usually backed both by the US (with military bases in Guam and in the Marshall Islands) and Japan, with Shinzo Abe’s doctrine of an “open and free Indo-Pacific”. Their shared interests to secure the area (geopolitically from China, economically from crime) are expressed through many projects and agreements with the PICs.
PICs’ limited capacity of governance of their maritime domains has been attractive for Japan, that has a per capita EEZ surface much smaller than that of most of the PICs, with which it has established a dialogue to cope with the vast and unguarded marine areas. Not directly through governmental channels, but through the NGO Nippon foundation led by Yohei Sasakawa, in light of Japan’s impossibility to partake in military and navy activities whose nature goes beyond their own defense. For example, it has facilitated the setup of the maritime coordination center in Palau, in full operational capacity in January 2018, as well as the installation of a surveillance system in the Malacca strait and the handover of patrol boats to Micronesian countries. As reported by Dr. Rieko Hayakawa, founder of the Sasakawa Pacific Islands Fund, the USPACOM and US Coastal Guard have recognized as positively proactive the Japanese efforts in the region to enhance maritime security.
Moving on to another historical US ally, with a presence of more than 7000 defense personnel and tens of units among vessels, aircrafts and helicopters, France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is facing both environmental and non-traditional security issues (drug smuggling, IUU fishing, piracy, human trafficking, etc.), whose solutions are articulated within formal dialogues with western countries and PICs. As for climate change and natural disasters, France has demonstrated a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) exercises (like “Croix du Sud”), not to mention its proposal in 2017, at the South Pacific Defense Ministers Meeting (SPDMM), to coordinate members’ navies and armies (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga, plus the United States and United Kingdom as observers) for a deeper study on the impact of climate change. As for non-traditional security, France, alongside Australia, New Zealand and the US, constitutes the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (QUAD), which manifests itself as a dialogue platform where maritime surveillance and military cooperation (principally against IUU fishing) are discussed. France’s privileged position of New Caledonia and Polynesia has recently guaranteed successes like the arrest of three Vietnamese so-called “blue boats”, that were fishing illegally offshore New Caledonia. Within the margins of the QUAD, the French forces have joined the numerous multinational operations under the Fisheries Agency of the Pacific Islands Forum (FFA), founded in 1979, currently with 17 members, that are PICs and Australia and New Zealand.
All these efforts are framed in the long institutionalized presence of the US in the western Pacific. Their influence is concretized through well-established organizations like the already-mentioned Pacific Islands Forum and QUAD, and also more recent initiatives like the biennial series of warfare exercises RIMPAC, the first in 2004, for which the US have recently extended an invitation to Fiji to join in summer 2020 (with slight changes to the pandemic).In 2019, the Trump administration has persisted in the predecessor’s recalibration to Asia, investing in the PICs, additionally to the annual $350 million, amounts like$36.5 million in August and $63.5 million in September, principally for development assistance linked to their associated states like the Marshall Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federates states of Micronesia and Palau but also Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Most of this $350 million, in 2018,was redirected to the Foreign Military Financing to strengthen maritime security and law enforcement cooperation ($290 million); a minor part of that sum was redirected to economic development, infrastructure building and protection of environment (about $30 million). Without going through each sector of investment, it is enough to say that the US have improved their engagement but perhaps paying “too much” attention to ensuring their strategic role while neglecting areas of concerns that, as the Fiji Ambassador in the US put it above, consist of a more pragmatic nature which is not rooted in geostrategic games but in the needs of their people.
But what about now? The pandemic has revealed the structural problem afflicting Oceania, despite the number of cases was never high. Dependency on tourism has shown its limit and not only in their case (see Italy). The severe lockdown’s consequences will surely lead PICs to seriously reconsider their economic strategy. In the meantime, where will the help come from? Within certain institutions (IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank), the procedures for requesting disaster relief funds or more flexibility have been already activated. In Oceania, the impact of the pandemic itself has not been violent (but its effects will be).Today, the power games will be nevertheless played within the same context of relationships, but the question iswhat kind of response countries will offer and whether it fits accordingly with PICs’ needs.