Big power posturing in Oceania threatens Pacific wellbeing and security, writes Professor Steven Ratuva, who argues Pacific countries should maintain their strategic and political independence.
Although President Biden’s visit to the Pacific last month was cancelled because of urgent domestic debt resolution issues in Washington, the proposed visit raised questions about America’s new interest in our part of the world. It’s another level up in the big power geopolitical contest in our region, as the stakes get higher and higher by the day.
Both China and the US have used a mixture of different strategies over the years to win the hearts and minds of Pacific Island countries, including “soft power” approaches, cheque-book diplomacy, political leveraging and military posturing. These are strategies to generate loyalty and muffle local alternative Pacific voices.
The US has suddenly increased its presence in the Pacific to counter what it sees as China’s aggressive incursions into the region. The usual US approach over the years is to construct a “threat” in the form of an adversary through media and political narratives, followed by the mobilisation of military, diplomatic and political resources and alliances to respond to this perceived and constructed source of insecurity.
Changing circumstances means creating new profiles and narratives of threat.
During the Cold War, the “enemies” were the Soviets, and after 9/11, it was the Islamic extremists. And now the Chinese are being demonised. Like well-fed Canterbury sheep, there’s an assumption that Pacific people will uncritically go along with this chain of demonisation and believe all the justifying ideological narratives without question.
The current pattern of the anti-China campaign and alliances is not new at all. It’s in some ways a replay of the Cold War scenario where Pacific states were, by design, locked into the US sphere of influence, despite their attempts to express their voices through the anti-nuclear movement.
Cold War militarisation and the anti-nuclear voices
At the height of the Cold War, the US had built an extensive network of military bases, installations, strategic focal points and intelligence bases in Hawai‘i, Guam, South Korea, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and other locations around the Pacific. Part of this broader strategic configuration was the ANZUS treaty, a military alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the US, which was created and justified under the doctrine of “strategic denial”, a policy to keep the Soviets out of the Pacific.
Under the “strategic denial” doctrine, Australia and New Zealand, as US proxies, were to ensure that Pacific Island countries were kept within the orbit of the US and western sphere of influence through cheque-book diplomacy and other means.
However, New Zealand’s membership of ANZUS was suspended as a result of its nuclear-free policy in 1984, which was put in place by David Lange’s Labour government with the support of the mass peace movement across the country. The policy angered the US because it banned nuclear armed and powered ships from entering New Zealand ports and waters. After New Zealand passed the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act of 1987, the US downgraded New Zealand’s status from “ally” to “friend”.
The institution of New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy was followed by the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (the Rarotonga Treaty) of which New Zealand was a major initiator and signatory. The treaty was signed in Rarotonga by Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Sāmoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu on August 6, 1985, and came into force on December 11, 1986. The treaty banned the manufacture, stationing or testing of nuclear weapons within their territories, and any testing within the nuclear-free zone.
That was a response to the nuclear tests in the region which saw the US conducting around 66 atmospheric tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. Britain also carried out atmospheric tests at Maralinga, Emu Field, and Monte Bello in Australia from 1952 to 1957. In 1963, both Britain and the US carried out atmospheric nuclear tests on Christmas Island in Kiribati. The French carried out around 190 nuclear detonations between 1966 and 1996 at the Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls. In addition to the tests were concerns about the dumping of nuclear wastes into the ocean.
The point I want to make here is that New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy and the Rarotonga Treaty represented a powerful Pacific voice — an example of Pacific peoples’ agency as a rallying point of resistance against big power incursions into the Pacific. These voices were further amplified by the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement which was set up by Pacific-wide activist groups in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
The end of the Cold War in the 1990s, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, compelled the US to reduce its presence in the South Pacific. It closed the USAID office in Fiji, and significantly toned down its political and strategic presence. After 9/11, much of the security responsibilities shifted to Australia — commonly referred to as “the deputy sheriff” — as the proxy power.
At the height of the “war on terror”, Australia’s security thinking was based on the assumption that the Pacific was an “arc of instability” which needed to be managed to keep Islamic terrorism at bay. This largely fanciful assumption was soon overshadowed by the lurking Chinese threat.
‘Enter the Dragon’: A new Pacific Cold War?
The increase in Chinese influence in the Pacific through aid, diplomacy, political relationships, cultural and educational engagements and other forms of “soft power” approaches has affected regional security dynamics significantly.
In response to this, the “western” powers have in recent years formulated various strategies with the hope of keeping Chinese influence at bay.
Obama’s approach was based on the “pivot to Asia-Pacific” as a way of building a strategic buffer against the Chinese Belt and Road initiative in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia’s “Step-up” policy was aimed at intensifying its engagement with Pacific Island countries to keep them out of China’s influence. This was also the intent of New Zealand’s “Reset” policy, but recently, there was a shift towards the “Resilience” approach with its focus on climate issues and sustainability, and away from the anti-China security paranoia.
As the Chinese influence in the region intensifies, the US has resorted to the Cold War tactic of forging strategic networks, this time in the form of the Indo-Pacific alliance. This alliance has two components. The first is what has been referred to as the QUAD, which consists of the US, Australia, Japan and India to create a circle of containment around China’s Belt and Road initiative in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The second is referred to as AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and the US) and is very much a club of Anglosphere countries. AUKUS contains provisions for Australia to purchase up to eight nuclear power submarines. This has been criticised for undermining the spirit of the Rarotonga Treaty as well as contributing to nuclear militarisation and heightening tension in the region.
Compared to New Zealand, which has an independent foreign policy stance, Australia’s strategy, supported by its conservative thinktanks, is strongly integrated into the US security sphere and mimics the US ideological stance in a “monkey-see, monkey-do” way.
New Zealand should keep away from AUKUS if it is to maintain its global credibility as an independent sovereign state.
Because both the QUAD and AUKUS alliances are Trojan horses for US global strategic interests, their relevance and usefulness for Pacific Island countries need serious scrutiny. They have nothing to do with the security interests of the Pacific Island countries.
As a legitimising exercise to mobilise support for the Indo-Pacific discourse, Pacific leaders were invited by Biden to a summit in Washington where they were promised US$810 million in aid as well as the return of the USAID office in Fiji for the Pacific and the opening of US embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga.
This is part of the geopolitical game of chequebook diplomacy and strategic leveraging to trap small states in a “you-choose-our-side” binary power game.
Towards an independent Pacific voice
During the Washington summit, President Biden told the Pacific Island leaders: “The security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security, and the security of the Pacific Islands.”
Really? US and global security depends on Pacific security? Since when? This is an amazing misrepresentation of the security realities and power structures in the world, not because the US believes in the primacy of Pacific Island security, but for the simple purpose of securing their loyalty and support.
The big powers (both US and China) are playing the old diplomatic and strategic game of sausage-factory politics where aid and political leveraging tactics are used to link up and absorb smaller states into their ideological orbit and sphere of influence. This isn’t because they want to help Pacific Island countries to advance their wellbeing and security, as they state in their diplomatic narratives. Never! It’s simply because they want to use them as a strategic buffer against their adversaries, whether it be China or the US.
This is why President Biden was meant to stop over in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on May 22, in between attending the G7 meeting in Japan and the Indo-Pacific meeting in Australia (which he also missed). The power of the US dollars and the almighty semi-divine imagery of the US president (the most powerful man on earth, as they say) were the main attractions and pulling factors.
For Pacific Island countries, the best way forward is not to be strategically aligned with any side but to maintain a sense of strategic and political independence to be able to benefit financially, culturally and politically from all sides.
The Pacific needs an independent collective voice. The oppositional, vindictive and toxic nature of the geopolitical contest isn’t in their best interests. In fact, it will draw them unnecessarily into the deep vortex of insecurity and uncertainty.
As the text of an ancient African idiom advises: “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.”
Steven Ratuva is an award-winning interdisciplinary Fijian scholar. He is Distinguished Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor Pacific at the University of Canterbury, and the director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. He also chairs the International Political Science Association research committee on climate security and planetary politics, and has other international, regional and national research leadership roles.
The opinions expressed in these articles don’t express the views of the University of Canterbury.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.