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Challenges in Oceania: the fight over Pacific Island Countries (PICs)

Alessandro Russo

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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.

China’s growth

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.

Australia

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”.

Japan

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.

France

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.

USA

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.

I am a BA graduand in Political Sciences and International relations at "L'Orientale" University in Naples and currently studying as an exchange student at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (SciencesPo, Asian Campus of Normandy).

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What Indonesia Can Do to Prevent Nuclear Arms Race in Asia Pacific?

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As the follow-up to the first round of talks convened last month, top diplomats from the US and Russia attended three-day meeting on 28 – 30 of July 2020 in Vienna, Austria, to discuss the future of nuclear arms control. One of the most highlighted issues of the talks is the possible replacement of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining nuclear arms control deal which is due to expire next year. The Treaty is considered essential to maintain strategic stability as it is aimed at reducing arsenals of the two nuclear powers.

Despite the claim that the first round of meetings in Vienna was productive, it remains unclear whether the second talks will end up in an extension of the New START or not. In this connection, experts are skeptical and questioning the genuine efforts of the US to pursue the process, as its administration keeps on putting conditions that is difficult to attain. One of those conditions is the broadening of nuclear arms control agreement by pushing China to join the talks, despite multiple rejection from Beijing. 

Concerns over the uncertain future of nuclear arms control also emerged in August last year, following the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia. After indicating its readiness to negotiate a new and better treaty, Washington expressed its difficulty to remain abide by the Treaty as Russia did not comply with it. In an act of reprisal, Moscow denied US allegations and pulled out from the landmark agreement which prohibited the two countries from launching nuclear-capable missiles with ranges from 500 to 5.500 kilometers.

As the INF Treaty has been abandoned and the continuation of the New START remains uncertain, the future of global nuclear arms control is at risk. Without the INF Treaty and presumably the New START limitations in place, nuclear arsenals of the two major nuclear powers would be practically unimpeded. Under this condition, both countries may swiftly develop ground-based missiles and engage countries in different regions, including in Asia Pacific, to secure strategic bases for deployment of those missiles through new or strengthened security cooperation frameworks.

Overshadowed by this situation, countries in Asia Pacific, including Indonesia, should be cognizant and explore their necessary capabilities to prevent the region from becoming an arena for a new arms race and nuclear weapons exchange.

As for Indonesia, its prominent roles in global nuclear arms control must be no longer be downplayed. Indonesia has long standing records in mitigating nuclear weapons threats. Indonesia has been a coordinator of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) working group on disarmament and non-proliferation since 1994, is an initiator of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (SEANWFZ), and is also considered strong advocate of initiatives on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament as well as on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Indonesia is also an avid participating country at robust institutional mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and other sub-regional mechanisms that have huge potential as effective mechanisms in building trust between countries. Additionally, on track two diplomacy, there are mechanisms such as the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and other similar mechanisms where Indonesia is also a member.

With such modalities at hand, Indonesia could actually pursue measures to better anticipate regional challenges stemming from the rising tensions between nuclear-armed states.

Indonesia could encourage a more concerted efforts to raise regional awareness on the negative impact of nuclear weapons. It is imperative to resonate the message across the region that the adverse impact of the use of nuclear weapons recognizes no geographical border. Furthermore, other factors such as human error, negligence, miscommunication, cyber risks and access of nuclear weapons by non-state actors should be highlighted as imminent threats if they are not properly addressed.

Another suggested effort is pushing confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy as a top priority for deliberation on arms control among countries in the region, such as under ARF and EAS. Under current destabilizing developments, maintaining peace and security in the region is of utmost importance. In this context, leaders need to be fully cognizant of the significance of these measures in leading the situation in the right direction and preventing the region from getting caught up in a possible arms race.

In addition to first track, institutional and track two mechanisms could also be maximized to create an enabling environment for political commitment among Asia Pacific countries to refrain from further reducing their commitment to nuclear arms control. While maintaining total and complete disarmament as an ultimate goal, countries in the region, particularly the ones with nuclear weapons capabilities, need to be urged through mechanism such as CSCAP to at least continue upholding their “no first use” nuclear policy. 

The next measure is to foster better interaction, exchanges of views and best practices between countries in the region to develop and strengthen national and regional nuclear safeguards infrastructure. As one of countries with highest compliance level to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)safeguards obligations, Indonesia could encourage countries in the region to further complete their IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the Additional Protocol. This  effort will provide assurances that Asia Pacific countries are only pursuing peaceful applications of nuclear energy.

Finally, Indonesia could convince countries in the region to bolster their collective support for the multilateral approach to international security. In this connection, while waiting for its Review Conference 2020 to be convened as soon as circumstances permit (but no later than April 2021), firm support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) must be reiterated to guarantee its integrity and credibility as an essential foundation for nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

All in all, with complexity and security challenges coming from within, including from South Asia and North East Asia, it should be realized that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to keep Asia Pacific  region secure from nuclear weapons threats. Thus, any opportunities for peace and stability must be seized since leaving the region in a limbo with the absence of collective measures to anticipate the possible impact of the nuclear arms control crisis is definitely a risky option.

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ASEAN in the Emerging Indo-Pacific

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In 2017, the concept of the Indo-Pacific, after it was included in the discourse of regional issues by US representatives, was unofficially framed as the region’s main discussion issue for the coming years. Having appeared in the Indian analytical magazine in 2007, the term “Indo-Pacific” for a long time only remained the subject of scientific discussions and entered the political vocabulary of only a couple of countries of the future region: India, Japan and Australia. At the initial stage of the emergence of the concept, ASEAN countries experienced serious problems of internal contradictions and really could not join the formation of the concept among the first. In 2013, Indonesia, as a country – one of the leaders in the region, presented an “aseanocentric” vision of the concept of “Indo-Pacific.” The proposal was to create a regional organization that includes all the basic principles of ASEAN (“integration”, “mutual understanding”), based on a symbiosis of two existing institutions: the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Association of East Asian Summit Members. It is not surprising that the proposed construct retained the leading role for ASEAN countries in future decisions of the organization, since it was actually proposed to “bring to a common denominator the heterogeneous and diverse ASEAN external partners» [2]. At the stage of presentation, the path of the “aseanocentric” concept stopped. The main ideas, agendas presented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, Marty Metalegawa, were not included in the discourse-discussion of the concept in the coming years.

If we give an analytical assessment of the approach proposed by Indonesia, on behalf of ASEAN, we can note its all-inclusive nature, where there were no restrictions on the entry of actors (the most striking example is the dualism of the China-USA pair), which at the time of the promotion of the initiative, which of course was perceived by most countries as anti-Chinese, the idea of forming a future concept fell somewhat out of the general trend of the movement of thought. Considering that in the years following the presentation of the concept by Indonesia, the confrontation between the USA and China only increased, it is not surprising that the «aseanocentric» version of Indo-Pacific seemed inappropriate to potential participants in the future concept. At the same time, the lack of economic opportunities for ASEAN countries to advance the initiative was superimposed on this.

Difficulties in embedding discourse

It is obvious that after the rejection of the “aseanocentric” initiative, the ASEAN countries found themselves in a dependent position on the will of other participants in the dialogue on the formation of a future concept. The absence of the agenda of the Southeast Asian countries in the formation of the future Indo-Pacific concept on the following provisions, which will negatively affect the position of ASEAN countries in the creation of Indo-Pacific.

As early as 2017, ASEAN countries were turned off from a direct discussion of the concept of “Indo-Pacific.” So during the four-way dialogue on the security of the region, among whose participants were the USA, Japan, Australia, India, not a single Southeast Asian country was invited. The lines on the application of the principle of “ASEAN centrality” in shaping the future concept in the final communiqué following the discussion looked all the more ironic [3]. The very format of the meeting, where in the presence of a significant number of regional, time-tested institutions, including ASEAN, this institution was chosen as the venue for the meeting (the four-way dialogue on security cannot be considered one of the main regional venues in the region), which did not include Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN’s potential reduced role in Indo-Pacific.

However, when discussing the non-inclusion of ASEAN countries in the process of adopting the concept of future Indo-Pacific, it is worthwhile to dwell in detail on the chronic internal problems of the organization, especially with regard to the process of developing a unified, consolidated position on any issue. The decision-making problem has already led to the “informality” being proclaimed as the main principle of ASEAN organization, since there are few official situations where the parties could agree on problematic issues (from unsuccessful examples: ASEAN position on SCS, standardization of tariff restrictions) [4]. As part of the ASEAN internal affairs, this lack of maturity is explained not only by the system of consensus decision-making established in the organization (when one abstaining is enough for the decision not to be made), but also by the constant desire for political diversification of previous agreements (example: despite the fact that ASEAN has been a long time trying to build a common market, most of the organization’s states are openly oriented to third markets, which diverges from official political statements and blocks promotion proposed “aseanocentric” initiatives) [5].

A very sensitive internal moment for the ASEAN countries in building the concept of Indo-Pacific is the orientation of the initiating countries to the principles of “freedom” and “democracy” in internal political life, which share the concept of countries. This is a very well-founded fear, since most of the ASEAN countries can be classified as hybrid regimes that combine the practice of democracy and authoritarianism. ASEAN countries that are historically sensitive (“postcolonial syndrome”) to any attempt to influence sovereignty (which at one time even made them completely abandon the idea of creating supranational political institutions) are absolutely reasonably alarmed by the potential changes in the internal political structure that the design of the Indo-Pacific concept can bring.

The main foreign policy concern of the ASEAN countries, in connection with their participation in the development of the Indo-Pacific concept, is the potential possibility of losing China, which is the region’s main economic partner. In the presentation of the main initiators of the USA and Australia, carries a clear anti-Chinese message, which automatically puts all countries that have joined this interpretation of the concept into a situation of potential deterioration in relations with Beijing in the event of a diplomatic dialogue-explanation.

Second ASEAN Vision of Indo-Pacific

Obviously, realizing the danger of developing the final concept of Indo-Pacific without them, ASEAN in 2018-2019 stepped up in terms of developing a unified position of the organization on this issue.

The first attempt to present the “aseanocentric” vision of Indo-Pacific took place at the 13th EAC Summit in Singapore in November 2018. Recognizing the vacuum created by ASEAN’s almost 5-year-old lack of work on the Indo-Pacific concept, the proposal put forward was the most general and included some points that the concept initiators had already tuned for in 2017, namely: “mutual trust and respect”, “centrality ASEAN”,“inclusiveness”,“transparency” [6]. Thus, ASEAN tried to competently enter into the discourse of the formation of the concept by stating some statements that would not cause disagreement between the initiators of the concept. However, in making such a vague proposal, the ASEAN countries once again demonstrated their inability to declare their own position and draw up the boundaries of problematic issues. In the academic community, such an ASEAN speech raised many questions and led to the formation of a public conviction about the transformation of the Southeast Asian region into an arena of rivalry between the great powers [7].

Understanding that specifics cannot be avoided, ASEAN countries at a meeting of senior officials in Thailand in March 2019 announced the creation of a preliminary document of the ASEAN common position regarding the concept of Indo-Pacific. On June 23, 2019, this vision was published.

In its understanding of a future initiative, ASEAN builds on the geographical side of the issue. According to this approach, the region of Southeast Asia is the central place in concept, therefore it is he who should play a key place in the economic and political processes of the future concept. The attempt to declare precisely the message of the “centrality of the region” is expressed by unfounded fears of the potential fragmentation of the region on the issue of Indo-Pacific (which the USA has been actively claiming with the intensification of relations with Vietnam since 2010). It is worthwhile to understand that if ASEAN is fragmented for many years, it will lose political sovereignty as an organization, and for many years it will be in a political crisis. Therefore, the question of finding a common foundation for the Southeast Asian countries is one of the key issues in presenting their vision of the Indo-Pacific initiative.

Another distinguishing feature of ASEAN, which can be seen in the presentation of the initiative, is the absence of a statement on the creation of new institutions. According to the organization, the existing institutions of the region can cope with this: the East Asian Summit (EAC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN +8 Ministerial Conference of Defense (ASEAN CMO + 8). Reliance on the EAC Institute can be explained from the standpoint of ASEAN’s reluctance to oppose China and Russia (to a lesser extent) to the organization’s desire to take part in the Indo-Pacific concept. Given ASEAN’s position on the “inclusive nature” of their vision, the inclusion of this countries in the list of potential foundations of the future concept does not look directly hostile to the countries initiating the anti-Chinese concept format (USA, Australia).

The main benefits for ASEAN, according to their presentation, are the region’s entry into a more intensive economic flow by participating in programs to attract foreign investment, intensifying existing projects and increasing the level of integration with world economic organizations [8] (which sometimes bypass Southeast Asia due to the region’s poor reputation in banking and opaque cash flow).

It is logical that the document does not actually contain any political statements about the future ending, including comparisons with the concept of APR, a vision of political interaction in the future of Indo-Pacific (ASEAN has historically very carefully expressed its political preferences).

Conclusion

After ASEAN’s attempts to intensify the advancement of its vision of the Indo-Pacific initiative, there was a situation where the positions of all actors with a potential concept were announced. It is obvious that the position of ASEAN, due to 5 years of silence and internal difficulties in the framework of decision-making in the organization, looks the most vulnerable. At the moment, ASEAN faces 2 conceptually important tasks:

  1. To convince the main actors of the future concept of Indo-Pacific (USA, Australia, Japan, India) that the «aseanocentric» vision is most appropriate to the current regional situation.
  2. Consolidate the organizations position on the issue of attracting (the principle of «inclusiveness» promoted since 2013) «controversial» players: China and Russia.

It is worth noting that the decision-making center for the prototype of the future Indo-Pacific concept and its potential similarity with the ideas proposed by ASEAN are now completely outside the control of ASEAN. The countries of Southeast Asia by incorrect decisions of previous years brought the region into a state of uncertainty and absolute lack of independence in building a future image of the region. This future is completely dependent on the desires of the countries initiating the concept of Indo-Pacific in 2017, primarily the United States.

The greatest that ASEAN can do now, as a single organization, is through diplomatic negotiations to achieve the greatest possible inclusion of the proposals put forward by them for the future region in the final version of the concept. It is excluded that the ASEAN option will be adopted as the basic prototype of the Indo-Pacific.

Understanding that to accomplish task No. 1, ASEAN will need some negotiation flexibility. It is expected that the organization will not raise uncomfortable issues, in the form of involving China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific.

Thus, it is worth noting that the question of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific initially looked like some kind of test for the political suitability of an organization that it did not pass successfully. The organization’s position was twice late on the impulses of the discussion: first in 2007, then in 2017. The situation with the future of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific was significantly complicated by chronic internal problems in the organization, which ultimately led to the loss of the ability to influence the potential decision on the concept in 2019. The future of the concept of the Indo-Pacific almost entirely depends on the will of more successful countries to push forward.

1. Колдунова Е. (2019) Юго-Восточная Азия перед вызовами Индо-Тихоокеанских концепций. Юго-Восточная Азия: актуальные проблемы развития. Том 1, №2 (43), Стр.42

2. Ibid.

3. Acharya A. (2017) The Myth of ASEAN Centrality?. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Studies. Vol 39, N.2.

4. Костюнина Г.М. (2017). Интеграционная модель асеан+1: основные положения соглашений и влияние на внешнеэкономические связи. Вестник Российского университета дружбы народов. Серия: Международные отношения, 17 (3), 441-457.

5. Дёмина В. (2018). Экономическая интеграция стран Восточной Азии. Вестник Института экономики РАН, (6), 181-194. URL: 10.24411/2073-6487-2018-00082 (Date of the application 08.05.2020)

6. Колдунова Е. (2019) Юго-Восточная Азия перед вызовами Индо-Тихоокеанских концепций. Юго-Восточная Азия: актуальные проблемы развития. Том 1, №2 (43), Стр.42

7. The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report. (2019) Singapore: ISEAS, 2019. P.12, 25.

8. Ibid.

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What does the West need Pacific’s youth for?

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The rapid increase in the proportion of young people in Pacific Island countries is forcing researchers to assess the risks that could bring about demographic shifts in the composition of the Pacific population.

This brings to mind the 1988-1998 civil war on Bougainville Island, or the 1998-2003 conflict on the Solomon Islands that socially destitute local youth actively participated in. During the years leading up to the war, 70 percent of Bougainville’s population was under the age of 26, and 80 percent between the ages of 12 and 25 had only primary education. Experts confirm that one reason why the conflict on the Solomon Islands has been flaring for so long is the high proportion of unemployed young people there.

This potential for conflict is still there, since seven out of ten inhabitants of the Solomon Islands are under 30 with basically the same social status. On the Fiji Islands, although the Youth Parliament was established there in 2018 to give young people better representation in political institutions, it has still been unable to shake up the traditional political system, where older people still call the shots in managing state affairs, just as they do in Papua New Guinea (PNG). This is fraught with a destabilization of the socio-economic situation in these countries, which, in turn, will inevitably take on a political dimension.

With all that being said, Fiji and PNG are still recognized by the human rights organization Freedom House as the only democratically non-free island states in the Pacific Ocean. They also account for a hefty 90 percent of the population of all 22 island states and territories. According to demographers’ forecasts, by 2035 the Solomon Islands will overtake Fiji in terms of the size of its population, and will become one of the region’s three demographic leaders.

This population “bulge” is coupled with its high density and the small size of the island states. In terms of territory PNG, the Solomon Islands and Fiji are the largest of them all, and in terms of population density, they are in the same league with Nauru, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. The region’s total population is projected to escalate from the current 11.9 million to 19.7 million by 2050, which will further overstrain the countries’ social infrastructure. (1) The current median age is 22 across the region, and half the population is aged under 23. (2) In 2019, PNG Prime Minister James Marape admitted that the country’s GDP growth was not keeping pace with the rising birth rate. The situation in most other Pacific island states is much the same.

The island states of the Pacific are now in the focus of attention of such regional “heavyweights” as the United States, Australia and New Zealand on  the one hand, and China on the other. Taiwan is also weighing in with big investments in a bid to win diplomatic recognition for itself from the Pacific states (Nauru, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands).

The amount of financial assistance that the Pacific states need depends on the effectiveness of their social institutions. This, in turn, will determine who exactly will be the investor and will manage to convert financial influence into a political one. Fearing that China may become exactly such an investor, Beijing’s geopolitical rivals are already looking ahead for ways to deal with this prospect.

Australia is currently the Pacific states’ main sponsor, with the amount of its assistance in 2019-2020 expected at $1.4 billion. (3) Canberra has awarded 312 scholarships for high school graduates from the Pacific island states and 440 such grants directly to PNG alumni for higher education. It has also launched the Pacific Labor Scheme, which enables citizens of ten island nations, aged between 21 and 45 to take up low and semi-skilled work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to three years. Australia is thus trying to ease social pressure on the governments of these states in an effort to prevent the emergence of an undesirable sponsor and investor in this region.

The way that the “collective West” is trying to tackle the socio-economic problems of the Pacific island states is not entirely conflict-free though.

First, experts say that this is setting the stage for increased alienation between different generations of islanders.

Secondly, the local culture with its inherent system of socio-political hierarchy will find itself the first victim of this approach, which would inevitably lead to the erosion of traditional cultural values as a whole.

Third, there is no reason to believe that bringing young and inexperienced people into politics will necessarily make it healthier and “cleanse” them from all their inherent local vices. Even less so if Western structures wade in with their all-too-well-known ideology. Their active work with young people is actually widening social rifts in the countries of the region which, according to local politicians, may lead to attempts to seize power by force.

This is exactly what happened during the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine.

Youth activism is used by the West as a means of creating opposition-minded social segments in other countries, cement the gap in the ideological continuity of generations and use alleged human rights violations as a reason for meddling in the countries’ domestic affairs. One indirect proof of this is the Western analysts’ increased interest in the situation with young people mainly in strategically important regions of which the Pacific Ocean is one.

From our partner International Affairs

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