British foreign minister’s belated visit to the Pacific a welcome counter to Chinese influence
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British foreign minister’s belated visit to the Pacific a welcome counter to Chinese influence

A commentary first published in The Guardian Australia on 21 April 2023

James Cleverly’s visit to the Pacific, the first by a British foreign minister to some of the islands since the 1970s, is as welcome as it is overdue. Australia and the US have already made significant renewed commitments to the Pacific after China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands in April last year but the UK’s Indo-Pacific “Tilt” has been some years in arriving to the South Pacific.

China has been expanding its presence in the Pacific for decades through investments in infrastructure and development projects. But it is its increasing security ties with Pacific nations that has raised concerns among traditional partners and some regional leaders about the potential consequences of Beijing’s growing influence. Cleverly’s visit signals the UK’s intention to contribute to the regional balance of power.

Given the UK’s diminished diplomatic presence in the Pacific in recent decades, this signalling is perhaps for the benefit of Australia and the US as much as it is a demonstration to Pacific countries of the UK’s commitment to the region.

The UK’s renewed engagement is part of the country’s broader post-Brexit foreign policy strategy in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The UK is forging new partnerships and deepening existing relationships with countries around the globe as it seeks to define its place in a contested rules-based international order after its departure from the EU.

Cleverly’s tour took in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, key Pacific countries in the regional geopolitical contest with China for influence. The visit coincided with Australian foreign minister Penny Wong’s own trip to New Caledonia and Tuvalu. Cleverly was also scheduled to visit Samoa for a joint programme with New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta, but the escalating violence in Sudan resulted in his skipping this leg of the trip in favour of coordinating the UK’s response to the crisis.

The announceables that accompanied the visit, while modest, were laudable. The UK pledged £4.5m in new funding to connect communities in PNG and across the Pacific to clean energy sources. The UK also offered its expertise in tackling climate change, protecting the region’s oceans, promoting public health, and supporting open societies and a free media.

The focus on climate change and oceans reflects the UK’s ambition to demonstrate global leadership on these issues and ties in well with Pacific countries’ own priorities.

Media freedom is under threat in Pacific countries. Anti-defamation laws are weaponised to silence Pacific journalists and media outlets critical of their government or powerful individuals. Pacific journalists have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and violence, which creates a climate of fear and self-censorship. The Pacific media landscape is teeming with CCP propaganda disseminating skewed narratives of local, regional and international developments. Increased UK support for the Pacific media sector would contribute to strengthening democratic values and institutions.

While in PNG, Cleverly signed a Status of Forces Agreement with his counterpart, Justin Tkachenko. Strengthening UK-PNG defence ties is a useful outcome of the visit to the country, particularly in light of the expected regional implications of the Aukus agreement in years to come.

But Pacific countries, and PNG in particular, have become quite used to receiving high-level visitors bearing gifts from afar, and it was notable that Tkachenko made the point of saying his country valued its relationship with China.

In Solomon Islands, prime minister Sogavare told Cleverly his country strongly supported the Rarotonga Treaty, which sets out the Pacific’s nuclear-free zone, and called for it to be respected. This was a thinly veiled reference to nuclear-powered submarines, the centrepiece of Aukus, potentially being deployed in the Pacific in the future.

Cleverly’s stopover there is significant in the context of the China-Solomon Islands security pact signed in 2022. The pact provides for an increased Chinese security presence in Solomon Islands, including to protect Chinese investments. It has raised lingering concerns among Australia, the US and New Zealand about its implications for the regional security order. All three countries sent high-level delegations to Solomon Islands to discuss the potential consequences of the deal last year, but prior to this visit, the UK had not.

Cleverly’s visit, as with the US or Australian visits to the Pacific that came before, will not buy traditional security partners any semblance of strategic exclusivity in the Pacific. Nor was this explicitly sought. Yet the visit and the UK’s evident renewed commitment to the Pacific “for the long haul” is intended to provide a democratic counterweight to China’s increasing influence in the region. And it is most welcome.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy in the Pacific; Australia-PNG relations; geopolitics in the Pacific; Melanesia; conflict analysis and fragile states