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About the project

In 2017 and 2018 a project by the Lowy Institute on South Pacific Fragile States produced independent research and forward-looking analysis on the key drivers of instability in the South Pacific, and the associated security challenges for Australia and the wider region. This included examining geopolitical challenges within an increasingly crowded and complex regional environment, domestic stresses faced by South Pacific nation states, and non-traditional challenges, such as climate change and transnational crime, that may destabilise the South Pacific.

The Project included workshops and roundtables which brought together external experts and government officials in an effort to build genuinely strategic approaches to complex issues relating to a broad national and regional security issues. The findings of the project were published through analysis papers, a series of online articles in the Interpreter, and were presented to the Australian government and wider public in a conference in early 2018.

The South Pacific Fragile State Project was funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Defence.

Photo: Getty Images/DeAgostini

Latest publications

Understanding resilience and fragility in the South Pacific

This post is part of the Lowy Institute's South Pacific Fragile States series.

After the US withdrawal from both the Paris Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Islands region is looking for reassurance from Australia and the US. The recent AUSMIN summit did produce a joint statement reaffirming US and Australian commitment to the region, but the South Pacific will need more.

Many nations across the region are subject to geostrategic, domestic and non-traditional drivers of instability that load stress onto national and local systems, sometimes to crisis point. The question for Australia and the US is how to work best with partners in the region to increase their resilience to these stresses.

Why resilience?

As Jenny Hayward-Jones recently commented, ‘resilience’ has been a buzzword in the development community for a while now. Hayward-Jones highlights the incredible resilience already inherent in South Pacific communities, often forced to cope with natural disasters independent of government support and she rightly points out history has shown the people of the South Pacific to be fantastically resilient. Indeed, they have much to teach Australians on the subject.

However, Australia does not often deal directly with the people of other sovereign nations. International partners must deal with local governments. This is especially the case when considering issues of security. As such, it is important to understand the systems that allow Pacific states to function. I want to propose a model for examining resilience and fragility within these systems that can guide security-focused policymakers.

A systems approach to resilience and fragility

A nation-state is an excellent example of a complex adaptive system, in that it consists of many diverse and autonomous components that are interdependent in ways that make it hard to predict the outcomes of altering any one part of the system. As you can see in the resilience framework model below, each system, which incorporates subordinate sub-systems, can tolerate a certain amount of stress or shock but, if too much pressure is applied, the system will reach a threshold. At this point it will fail and the system will go into crisis.

Usually, unless it is a truly black swan event, there will be a number of threshold indicators that, if picked up, will denote an increased likelihood of system failure. Once these are recognised, policy makers can be alerted to the probable impact of that system failing. They can also get timely and sound guidance as to the risks of allowing that system to fail, as well as the costs and risks associated with pre-emptive or post-crisis intervention.

Assessing intervention and risk tolerance

It is important to highlight at this point that, should Australia choose to intervene, it can do so at any point along the line; it does not have to wait until there is a crisis. Any intervention, be it pre-emptive or post-crisis, will have one of two aims: it will either seek to reduce the stresses on the system so that they no longer overwhelm the system, in effect returning the conditions to pre-crisis levels, or it will attempt to make the system more resilient. Preferably, any intervention should aim to increase system resilience, even if addressing the causes of a crisis. In the long run, it is increased resilience that will allow a nation to cope more effectively with future shocks and stresses.

The timing of any intervention is important for two reasons. Firstly, and critical for policy makers, is the cost differential between pre-emptive and restorative intervention. A good example is the cost of Britain’s intervention in the Balkans. The then-Foreign Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw, highlighted in a speech in 2002 that intervention in Bosnia, which only occurred after multiple systems had passed their thresholds and the nation had failed to function as a state, cost the British taxpayer at least £1.5 billion. In comparison, the intervention in Kosovo, which occurred at the point of crisis, cost £200 million while the pre-emptive intervention in Macedonia, which occurred when threshold indicators suggested systems were approaching crisis, cost just £14 million.

Second, it must be noted that the risks, and costs, of both intervention and declining to intervene are not just financial. The risk descriptors outlined below are an attempt to articulate the impact of that risk to the Australian government across five categories: national reputation; political capital; human capital; financial cost; and environmental impact.

The other important aspect of timing is detecting when the environment is ‘ripe’ for intervention. The theory of conflict ripeness suggests parties to conflict only resolve their issues when they are ready to do so, usually when other options that would give them a more favourable outcome have been exhausted. In other words, this is the art of identifying and seizing the point where a stalemate is reached and parties are willing to accept an intervention. This is very much a qualitative judgement, best made by experienced observers on the ground. It is also worth highlighting that if some environments are ripe for intervention, others will be ‘unripe’. Intervention in unripe environments are likely to be ill-received and may even exacerbate problems.

When confronted with decisions about resilience and fragility in the South Pacific, policy-makers can benefit from considering this model. It focuses on identification of threshold indicators, and it also articulates risk holistically. Most importantly, it forces decision-makers to compare the pre-emptive costs of intervention against the cost of restorative intervention.

Australia calling: How to fight external electoral manipulation in the South Pacific

Security concerns about external subversion of national elections show no sign of abating. On 3 May, James Comey, then still Director of the FBI, testified to the US Senate Judiciary Committee that the Russian government was attempting to influence American politics, going so far as to say that Russia is 'the greatest threat of any nation on earth' to the US democratic process. On the other side of the Atlantic, hackers released nine gigabytes of emails from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign two days before the French presidential election and in the UK, officials have accused Germany of trying to influence the upcoming general election by undermining Theresa May during Brexit negotiations.

External attempts to manipulate electoral outcomes in politically stable countries that are members of the G7 is certainly troubling. However, electoral manipulation within fragile states in the South Pacific, which do not share the same levels of political or social resilience, could cause catastrophic cascading effects. Destabilising actions that heighten tensions during elections risk triggering political violence with which local law enforcement agencies would struggle to cope. As such, electoral manipulation is not just a threat to political processes in the South Pacific, but also a very real risk to stability across the region. But what could be gained from manipulating elections in the South Pacific?

The aim of electoral manipulation does not need to be a change to the global order. The election of a friendly government or leader may give an external actor more favourable access to emerging markets or natural resources, assured votes in the UN, or simply undermine existing alliances. The reasons may be varied and, in many cases, not immediately apparent. US indignation that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the US presidential election should be served with a healthy side order of hypocrisy. Research by political scientist Dov Levin has found that the US may have attempted to influence foreign elections as many as 81 times between 1946 and 2000. Most of these were small countries that, for a variety of reasons, the US wanted to see run by a sympathetic government.

So, electoral manipulation is not new, but it does appear that it is now being conducted more brazenly and Australia needs to pay attention. In next three years, four significant elections are expected in our region. Two of these are national (PNG in 2017 and Fiji in 2018) and two are independence referendums (New Caledonia in 2018 and Bougainville, currently forecast for 2019). Of the four, the latter two are most susceptible to interference from external forces. New nations make for new markets, new security partners and new opportunities to increase influence within a region. Independence referendums are also fertile ground for disinformation campaigns. Rumours and passion make for a heady, and often combustible, mix.

The counter to disruptive disinformation aimed at manipulating elections is an accountable news media that populations trust. Australia has traditionally been a major provider of trusted news to the South Pacific through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). For geographic reasons, short wave radio was the most effective way of reaching communities in the South Pacific throughout the 20th century. Some have therefore lamented that, just at a time when Australia needs to be a trusted voice across the region, the ABC has ceased its shortwave radio service. An Australian Senator has even raised a bill in parliament which, if passed, would force the ABC to reintroduce the shortwave service. It is true that shortwave radio provided the ABC with a proven platform that could counter misinformation and that is hard to manipulate. However, as the ABC argues, the shortwave radio service is also an outdated media platform that costs a significant amount to maintain. The reality of tight budgets means limited resources need to be prioritised to provide the best content possible over a platform that is accessible to the widest audience.

We live in an increasingly digitally connected world that now largely relies on non-traditional media outlets for its news. A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center estimated 62% of US adults got their news from social media sites. Another study in 2016, by the Reuters Institute, found that 61% of Australians use a smartphone or tablet to access news online, with 52% reporting that they use online sources and social media to get their news.

These trends are visible in developing nations too. Mobile broadband has had a significant impact in the South Pacific. A report published in June 2015 noted that 90% of households across Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu had a mobile phone. In Papua New Guinea, the most challenging of nations for market penetration, 44% of the population have mobile phone subscriptions and, as a result, only 10% of national web traffic is accessed by computers while 89% goes to mobile phones. In effect, a large proportion of the South Pacific’s population, regardless of their remote location, have access to a digital world of information through their mobile phone. And the world has access directly to them.

It makes sense therefore for the ABC to concentrate on developing products accessible through the mobile broadband network. According to David Hua, ABC's head of international audiences, there are plans to 'internationalise' the ABC mobile phone app to make it available outside Australia. This would be a good start but more needs to be done. The development of mobile broadband-based platforms needs to be a priority for government as part of a broad security strategy to provide stability in the region. A trusted Australian voice, delivered directly to the people of the South Pacific through their phones, could provide a stabilising influence in an era increasingly characterised by destabilising external forces.