External powers in the Pacific: implications for Australia

Dr Cameron Hill, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key Issue
The international relations of the Pacific have become more complex as a wider array of external powers pursue diverse interests and increased influence.

For reasons of geography, size and history, Australia has long been recognised as having a leadership role when it comes to advancing the prospects and priorities of its Pacific Island neighbours. Whilst Australia and New Zealand, alongside the US, France, the EU and Japan, remain the most significant security, trade and aid partners for most Pacific countries, a wider range of external powers are playing a bigger role in shaping the region’s international relations.

Pacific Island countries are leveraging this diversity to advance their own strategic, economic and development goals.   

China

China has continued to increase its engagement in the Pacific. According to one estimate, China’s bilateral aid in the Pacific over the last decade totalled  around US$1.4 billion, around one-fifth of that provided by Australia. In 2013, China offered US$2 billion in concessional loans for regional infrastructure development. China’s aid projects in the Pacific, such as the current renovation of the prime minister’s office in Vanuatu, are often very high profile. Fiji, estranged from Australia and New Zealand until recently, has been a prominent beneficiary of China’s assistance.

China’s interests in the Pacific include port access, fisheries, natural resources and, more recently, deep sea exploration. They also include garnering support for Beijing’s position on core interests such as ‘one China’ and the South China Sea disputes (see separate brief). Both PNG and Vanuatu have recently expressed positions on the latter that closely align with those of China.  

Russia

Russia’s contemporary interests in the South Pacific stretch back to the Soviet era and the Cold War, during which Moscow’s Pacific Fleet was deployed across the wider region. Although Russia’s current interests and influence are more modest, it has stepped up its Pacific engagement in recent years. Russia has increased its military presence in the region, including through plans to strengthen its Pacific Fleet and several recent high-profile deployments of military assets. Some analysts have speculated that over the longer term, Russia may be seeking naval basing rights in the region.

Russia also attracted attention in early 2016 following revelations of an arms supply deal with Fiji. This deal—which included ammunition, small arms, spare parts and mechanical workshop trucks—has been described as ‘the first shipment of lethal aid into the Pacific by a non-traditional partner’ and attracted some criticism within Fiji.

India

India is also becoming a more prominent player in the Pacific. Given the country’s large Indian diaspora, Fiji has been a particular focus. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 visit to Fiji included promises of increased bilateral aid and investment, as well as commitments to enhance cooperation with Pacific Island countries on climate change, trade, and space and satellite technologies.

While India’s links with the Pacific remain relatively modest, New Delhi is actively pursuing enhanced engagement with the region as part of a wider ‘Indo-Pacific’ maritime outlook. From the perspective of the Pacific Island countries, ‘India’s presence offers the prospect of greater balance in the South Pacific’.     

Indonesia

Indonesia’s recent engagement with the Pacific has been dominated by its concerns over alleged ‘interference’ in the West Papuan issue by some members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). Jakarta has been particularly keen to ensure that groups promoting independence for West Papua do not gain full membership of the MSG. Indonesia continues to deploy extensive diplomatic resources in the Pacific to avert this outcome.

As part of its wider development diplomacy, Indonesia has also sought to pursue greater ‘South-South’ cooperation through increased aid and people-to-people links with Pacific Island countries. This included assistance to Fiji in the wake of 2016 Tropical Cyclone Winston.    

Implications for Australia

While not as contested as maritime East Asia, the international relations of the South Pacific have become more complex as a wider array of external powers pursue diverse interests and increased influence.

Australia’s traditional leadership role in the Pacific is not being directly challenged. Indeed, increased international trade, investment and aid are regional goals that Australia has long advocated and pursued. But Australia will need to adapt to this new environment if it is to ensure it remains a partner of choice for its Pacific neighbours. This may mean being more responsive when it comes to the priorities of these countries in areas such as climate change, labour mobility, and fisheries management.

It may also mean working harder to ensure that greater engagement by external powers does not undermine gains in areas such as governance, anti-corruption and inter-communal peace. Recent instability in PNG shows the fragility of these gains. Some critics contend that Australia’s emphasis on maintaining offshore detention and resettlement agreements with PNG and Nauru has undermined its credentials and capacity in these areas.  

It has also been argued that Australia needs to be more flexible when it comes to the region’s multilateral architecture. Groupings such as the MSG and the Pacific Islands Development Forum, both of which exclude Australia and New Zealand, are seen by some of their members as more responsive to regional priorities and more attuned to enduring local sensitivities concerning sovereignty and ‘neo-colonialism’. Australia may need to think more creatively about how to engage with these groupings.

Further reading

W Bruere and C Hill, Changes to Australia’s overseas aid program under the Abbott and Turnbull governments 2013–2016, Research paper series, 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

S Dorney, The embarrassed colonialist, Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2015.

 

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