A new report has urged New Zealand, Australia and the United States to help establish a new Pacific security forum, as another defence agreement involving a superpower heightens concerns about the region’s militarisation.
The report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) also argues the countries must accept the “reality” of China’s growing role in the Pacific and seek to work with the Asian power within the region, instead of pushing nations to pick sides.
The document’s release on Monday came as the US and Papua New Guinea signed a controversial security deal on the sidelines of a meeting between the US and Pacific leaders in Port Moresby.
Concerns about Great Power competition in the region have been growing in recent years, with those fears further heightened after China and the Solomon Islands signed a security deal in early 2022.
The ASPI report, produced by Massey University security studies professor Dr Anna Powles and University of Adelaide international security professor Joanne Wallis, cited the Solomons deal as evidence that Western nations lacked the power to “compel [Pacific countries] not to pursue closer relations with China”, and instead needed to plan for a range of powers playing a role in the region.
“This is not to say that Australia, New Zealand and the US have to welcome or facilitate China’s expanding role, nor that they shouldn’t try to discourage it, but for the time being it’s a reality that they need to work with.”
Powles and Wallis said the three countries needed to consider mechanisms to handle China’s presence in areas with the potential for friction, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
A lack of coordination in the response to the January 2022 tsunami in Tonga “resulted in competition for pier-side support, access to tarmacs and flight scheduling, as well as poorly coordinated donated equipment”.
“Today, 75 eight-tonne inappropriate and unwanted one-bedroom prefabricated homes donated by China sit gathering salt spray on the wharf in Nuku’alofa.”
Trying to draw China into cooperative regional systems, rather than appearing to force Pacific nations to choose sides, would show the Western nations had heeded calls to reduce unnecessary competition in the region.
“One thing that Australia, New Zealand and the US haven’t always done well is to place Pacific priorities front and centre in their engagement plans and activities in a way that isn’t tokenistic.”
– ASPI report
New Zealand, Australia and the US could also support the Pacific Islands Forum to respond to geopolitical challenges through the creation of a ‘Pacific Regional Forum’, modelled on a similar forum for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
The Asean forum allowed the regional grouping’s members and dialogue partners to discuss “political and security issues of common interest and concern”, helping to manage the roles of great powers while allowing the smaller nations to maintain a sense of strategic autonomy.
Powles and Wallis said the key to success would be ensuring there was a sufficiently senior level of representation, with a foreign ministers-level meeting among the options.
Addressing the Partners of the Blue Pacific initiative, set up by the US for it and Western partners to work with Pacific nations, the report noted criticism it had received for undermining regional decision-making processes and a lack of transparency.
“One thing that Australia, New Zealand and the US haven’t always done well is to place Pacific priorities front and centre in their engagement plans and activities in a way that isn’t tokenistic.
For decades, their regional policies have often been influenced primarily by their perceived interests, without adequately taking account of those of [Pacific countries], or the consequences of their policies.”
Speaking to media while in Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the US-Papua New Guinea deal was “not new territory” given the existing security relationship between the two countries.
Asked why the Government did not appear as concerned about the latest deal as it had been about the China-Solomons agreement, Hipkins mentioned the greater transparency of the US deal.
New Zealand remained opposed to the militarisation of the Pacific, but a military presence in itself did not necessarily increase the chances of conflict.