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Chinese whispers and Pacific agency

Pacific island countries are well aware of strategic risks, and want the issues that worry them most to be in focus.

A fisherman in Tuvalu (Photo: Fiona Goodall/ Getty)
A fisherman in Tuvalu (Photo: Fiona Goodall/ Getty)

Over the past year, Pacific specialists have been caught between bemusement, frustration, and deepening concern as elements within the strategic community in Australia and the United States have sought to shape the regional security narrative to reflect their growing anxiety about Chinese influence in the Pacific islands. This risks creating a one-dimensional, essentialist debate – one that puts too much focus on major powers’ geostrategic interests without recognising the region’s complexities, including “non-traditional” security challenges.

This is not to ignore legitimate concerns about geostrategic competition in the region and the potential outcomes; it is clear that Australia and New Zealand have lost relevance and influence in the region thanks to benign neglect and outdated understandings of regional dynamics and priorities.

Much of the strategic debate in Australia, New Zealand, and the US … implies that Pacific states are passive dupes to Chinese influence, unaware of regional geostrategic challenges.

It is also clear that Pacific island countries do not necessarily share the same concerns as Canberra, Wellington, and Washington. Large-scale Chinese investment has provided much needed opportunities, particularly in infrastructure development. The perception of competition that this has created is regarded by many Pacific leaders to be advantageous. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has said “it is healthy that there are competing sources of finance for infrastructure projects” and that the “competition between China, Australia, and the United States leading to funds being made available to the Pacific is in the best interest of our countries.”

What Pacific leaders are calling for is better coordination between China and the traditional partners, along with less foghorn diplomacy.

None of this means that Pacific island countries do not understand the strategic risks. The Pacific has rarely been immune from major power contestation, from the 1884 Berlin Conference, at which the imperial powers carved the Pacific along arbitrary lines, through to the Pacific War, Russian interference during the Cold War, and as a battleground between Beijing and Taipei for diplomatic recognition.

Throughout, Australia, New Zealand, the US and France have sought to drive a favourable security orthodoxy that has not necessarily recognised or supported Pacific needs.

And yet much of the strategic debate in Australia, New Zealand and the US provides little space for Pacific voices. Instead, it implies that Pacific states are passive dupes to Chinese influence, unaware of regional geostrategic challenges. This has been accompanied by a deeply patronising sentiment all too familiar in the Pacific that it is up to Australia and Pacific specialists to lecture the region about these supposed challenges.

The notion that Pacific states lack agency and need such lectures is patently false, demonstrated both by the recent Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ communiqué, in which Pacific leaders acknowledged the “increasingly crowded and contested” nature of the region, and by prominent speeches by PIF Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. Malielegaoi, who spoke at the Lowy Institute in August, identified:

a ‘patronising’ nuance in believing that Pacific nations did not know what they were doing … One has the tendency to be bemused by the fact that the reaction is an attempt to hide what we see as strategic neglect.

The present debate also erroneously assumes that Pacific states fail to take account of Australia’s geostrategic interests. Pacific countries constantly manage relationships with their regional “big brother”, but this does not presume they will always act in Australia’s best interests. They are sovereign states, entitled and able to execute their own foreign and strategic policies.

The Pacific nations have vast experience at negotiating and navigating priorities, increasingly within the international arena. In 2012, former Kiribati President and leading climate change advocate, Anote Tong, described a “paradigm shift”, declaring the Pacific was entering a new era in which it would “chart its own course” towards international leadership in crucial areas such as climate change, oceans governance, and sustainable development.

The emergence of the “new Pacific diplomacy” reflects assertive participation of Pacific leaders on the international stage and robust issues and identity-based agendas that seek to reorder the Pacific (and its priorities) along Pacific lines.

Pacific priorities include so-called non-traditional security challenges, such as climate change. While there is an assumption among some strategic thinkers that these challenges are only the concern of Pacific states, this is not so; both Australia and New Zealand are signatories to the Pacific Island Forum’s Boe Declaration, which explicitly identifies climate change as the “single greatest” security challenge facing the region.

Marginalising Pacific concerns about non-traditional issues risks undermining the very influence that Canberra, Wellington, and others seek to cultivate in service of their geostrategic interests. As Pacific leaders have acknowledged, the Pacific is an increasingly crowded and contested region. But dominating Australian, New Zealand, and US strategic debates about the region with narrow calculations based on material power will only undermine genuine strategic understanding of the inter-connected threats the Pacific faces. Critical, multidimensional security analyses are required.

Pacific Research Program

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