Upping the ante in the Pacific

The microstates of Micronesia, the small Polynesian nations and the island countries of Melanesia have often been ignored.

They make up a minuscule proportion of the world’s population and have an even tinier share of global wealth.

Some of the western islands were the centre of intense World War confrontation, notably the sea battle between Japan and the United States at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Then, they were again largely forgotten, although some were used for nuclear testing.

China’s emergence as the second superpower and its determination to spread its influence into the Pacific has changed the seascape.

The United States already has a major base on Guam, several military bases in the Philippines and Japan and one still in South Korea. It has other allies around the Indo-Pacific.

From the Chinese point of view, this must look formidable. Meanwhile, China pushes its claims to Taiwan and it has upset neighbours through aggressive expansion into the South China Sea.

China recently also signed a security pact with Solomon Islands — despite specific Australian and New Zealand security support for the Solomons. The pact details have still not been revealed.

Then, as Pacific Islands Forum meetings began this week came news Kiribati would not attend and would not even engage with its Pacific partners. The hand of China is, not surprisingly, being seen in this.

Senior Chinese officials travelled around the Pacific to follow up the Solomons deal. They were put off from wider agreements for now. US Vice-president Kamala Harris, however, was given the chance to speak to the forum.

This says a lot about the fundamental orientation of much of the Pacific even as China is making progress and becoming a bigger player. It has already convinced most states to ditch recognition of Taiwan.

But a reinvigorated United States and ties to Australia and New Zealand are still central.

New Zealand launched its Pacific reset in 2018, but was caught napping a little during Covid.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has been at the forum, has spoken out against more militarisation of the Pacific. She also, wisely, repeats the importance of respecting the integrity of Pacific nations. Australia, in particular, has been somewhat patronising, even as it has poured in aid.

What changing circumstances will mean, nonetheless, is an increasing role for China. Those independent Pacific nations have been accruing financial benefits by courting China as well as the US.

The Pacific has in the past agreed to work on consensus, and the 2000 Biketawa Declaration created a framework to react to crises and for co-ordinated responses. The Boe Declaration in 2018 expanded this to include human, cyber and environmental security as well as transnational crime.

What the China security pact with the Solomons and Kiribati’s attitude illustrate, though, are that any Pacific consensus is fragile. When push comes to shove, nations — or at least particular prime ministers — will pursue individual interests.

In the meantime, benefits can come from the power rivalry. The United States itself is to open embassies in Tonga and Kiribati and increase its aid and engagement. Fisheries are always central to that.

Unfortunately, this focus on strategic positioning submerges somewhat the most important issue facing the Pacific — climate changes. More extreme weather and atolls being splashed beneath the waves are existential threats.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the policies of Australia and the United States under previous leaders Scott Morrison and Donald Trump created Pacific antagonism.

As is so often the case with international relations and diplomacy, the best approach for New Zealand is to work with patience and subtlety — lots of listening and lots of consulting.

This country can continue with the likes of supporting climate projects, the RSE worker scheme and defence support when asked for as in the Solomon Islands. It can back the pleas of the Pacific to the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the world on climate change.

It can work to discourage any more militarisation of the Pacific, while also being realistic enough to recognise that Pacific nations will look to China and not just the West for assistance.