Whether Indo or Asia, the Pacific has often seemed an afterthought in geostrategic discussions. With growing Great Power rivalry in the region, that may be starting to change – for both good and bad, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Pacific leaders could be forgiven for feeling they are often shunted to the sidelines during the debate about the best way to frame the current state of the world.

The US vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” seems primarily about a greater role for Japan, India and Australia as a counterweight to China, while the more traditional Asia-Pacific construct is, for some, about maintaining the centrality of the ASEAN bloc.

In neither case do smaller Pacific nations feature prominently; as Peacifica NGO director James Cox put it on Twitter, “The moral of the story [is] in any ‘-Pacific’ the Pacific loses out.”

But the return to the Pacific of what Foreign Minister Winston Peters has called “Great Power rivalry”, with the US and China vying for influence, has begun to shift the spotlight towards the region – demonstrated by the inclusion of an inaugural session at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on “strategic interests and competition in the South Pacific”.

Dame Meg Taylor, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the only Pacific Islander on the session’s five-person panel, told the audience the Pacific “finds itself inextricably at the centre of an era of strategic competition” with significant implications for the region’s development.

Frances Adamson, the head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, insisted that her country “does not see the region through the lens of strategic competition” – a claim greeted sceptically by some at Shangri-La on the eve of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the Solomon Islands to unveil $250m in infrastructure funding.

“China has made it quite plain that their long-term ambition is to lead the international order…bases in Djibouti, ambition for bases elsewhere in the Indian Ocean speak to the concerns we should all have in the Pacific islands chain as well.”

As Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in strategic studies at Massey University, told Newsroom: “At least be honest about it…strategic anxieties around China led to the recalibrated policies towards the Pacific, so put it out there, acknowledge it then move on from it and talk about how to build relations.”

Admiral Philip Davidson of the US Indo-Pacific Command sought to borrow the language of the Pacific, speaking of a “synergy” between the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Boe declaration on regional security signed by PIF leaders last year.

But while Davidson spoke about the “long and rich” American history in the Pacific, it seemed clear his focus was on more recent events as he responded to a question about the potential for China to develop new military bases in the Pacific.

“China has made it quite plain that their long-term ambition is to lead the international order…bases in Djibouti, ambition for bases elsewhere in the Indian Ocean speak to the concerns we should all have in the Pacific islands chain as well.”

Concern about so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” from China in the Pacific was also alluded to in a plenary speech by Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, as he spoke about countries “engaging in predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals”.

Three elephants fighting, but one winning

But there seems to be a disconnect between what some nations see as the priority for the Pacific, and what those in the Pacific itself believe.

That was perhaps best illustrated by Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto, the acting commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, who said there were in fact three elephants fighting for influence at the moment: China, the US, and climate change.

“Of the three, climate change is winning – climate change exerts the most influence, if you like, on the countries in our part of the world,” Naupoto said.

Taylor agreed, describing climate change as the “single greatest threat to the security of the Pacific” and calling for the securitisation of the issue to bring the rest of the world into the fold.

“When others want to come into the region, we want to know what are they going to do to align themselves to our agenda – not we align ourselves to their agenda.

Pacific Islands Forum secretary general Dame Meg Taylor says climate change is the single greatest security threat to the Pacific. Photo: FAO/Alessandra Benedetti.

Defence Minister Ron Mark, who has been enthusiastic about the New Zealand military’s role in the war against climate change, backed her up as he put the climate and the Pacific front and centre during his speech at the closing session of Shangri-La.

Of the Boe declaration and its emphasis on the environment as a security issue, Mark said: “It gives us a compass for action and we must follow it.”

But while Adamson, Davidson and the other non-Pacific panellists all referenced the importance of climate action, Powles said the session was “hit and miss” in acknowledging the likely security ramifications.

“If you think about water security, access to water sources, access to food sources, the security issues that occur as a consequence of forced displacement…we know for a fact there are multiple conflicts that had their roots in climate insecurity.”

Taylor could be forgiven for feeling frustration at the US-China conflict overshadowing the real, existential concerns in the Pacific about climate change, but she said the clash of the giants could not be ignored.

“They’re the two biggest players and they have to work it out because it all filters down to the rest of us.”

But were those big players listening to the plight of the Pacific?

Defence Minister Ron Mark has been a strong advocate of the role the military can play in responding to climate change. Photo: IISS.

Powles was not optimistic: “It was extremely polite, fairly unremarkable and underwhelming…it was very transactional, there wasn’t in a great deal in there about building relationships, about that soft power side.”

As LaTrobe University’s Nick Bisley noted, there is only so much oxygen to go around the region, and there was a risk the US and China would consume it all.

“The other real concern is that strategic competition in the South Pacific kind of crowds out everything else and becomes, not proxy wars, but picking winners and picking sides.”

Mark appeared more confident that those focusing on the military contest did not outnumber others calling for more assistance and support in the region.

“If you were to weigh up the numbers of the voices there, I’d say there’s more in the latter camp – it’s just that some of the other voices might be louder.”

There will be more chances for the Pacific to be heard, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies promising to place a greater emphasis on discussions and events about the region.

But Taylor said she and other leaders were not relying on anybody else to do their work for them.

“Partners will come and go in the Pacific. However, we – the people of the region – will remain.”

Sam Sachdeva attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore thanks to a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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