Struggle for Influence in the Western Pacific (I)

BERLIN/WASHINGTON |

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - The US-led RIMPAC 2018, the world's largest naval maneuver, began yesterday with German soldiers participating. According to the US Navy, the naval exercise will also include operations in the Western Pacific. The region of the Southwest Pacific islands will thus come into focus, which - even though largely ignored by the European public - has been gaining significant global influence. On the one hand, the influence of Western countries has shrunk recently, while that of their strategic rivals, such as Russia and China, has significantly grown. Some Pacific island nations have since then been seeking to pursue a foreign policy independent from the West. On the other hand, the Southwest Pacific has become even more important also for Australia and the Unites States: as the political economic backyard for Australia and "gateway to the Indo-Pacific" for the U.S.A. Germany is also attempting to increase its activities in the region.

RIMPAC 2018

The US-led RIMPAC 2018, the world's largest naval maneuvers, began Wednesday with German soldiers participating. As the US Navy had previously announced, the naval exercise will particularly focus on operations in the Western Pacific (german-foreign-policy.com reported [1]) and will include the small Tonga kingdom, a state in the large island region of the Southwest Pacific. The region, which has recently been gaining significant global influence - even though largely ignored by the European public - will thus come into the sights of western military strategists. Of the eleven independent nations, two partially self-administrated states and divers colonies of the Pacific region,[2] seven of the republics had been German colonies - a history largely forgotten; the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, the Salomon Islands and Samoa. Only two of the Pacific Island nations, Fiji and Tonga, have their own militaries. For a long time following World War II, in addition to the traditional colonial powers Great Britain and France, particularly Australia, New Zealand and the USA, organized in the ANZUS pact [3] played a dominant role in the regions politics, economy and military.

Growing Rivals

Over the past few decades, however, the Western powers have increasingly been losing influence in the Pacific - to emerging nations, such as Brazil and India, but also to their direct rivals, like China, Cuba, and Russia. Since the early 2000s, Cuba has had ties to almost all countries in the region and provided medical aid in particular. Physicians from the socialist republic are working in several Pacific Island nations. In 2003, the government of the People's Republic of China had announced that it would expand its ties to countries of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), which includes all islands of the region.[4] In fact, during the years that followed, Beijing massively expanded its influence, above all, through credits and development aid.[5] Russia is also expanding its presence in the Pacific. After the 2009 military putsch in Fiji, its new government was turning increasingly toward Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was the first senior Russian government official to visit Fiji in 2012. Four years later an extensive Russian arms shipment to Fiji aroused international attention. Following the military hardware, Russian military advisors arrived on the Island.[6] For Western strategists, this was a severe setback.

A more Independent Foreign Policy

In fact, the growing non-western influence is allowing several of the Pacific island nations to temp a foreign policy more independent from that of the West. This can be seen in minute details, hardly discernable to superficial observers. For example, between 2009 and 2011 Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu recognized the independence of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia - a setback not only for western oriented Georgia, but also for the western countries themselves, including Germany, which still strictly refuse to recognize both regions' independence. Tuvalu and Vanuatu, however, under massive pressure from the West, rescinded their recognition. After Crimea joined the Russian Federation in 2014, five of the Pacific island governments refused to condemn this as an "annexation in violation of international law" - as the West does.[7] In 2015, police officers from Vanuatu marched, for the first time, in China's capital Beijing’s celebration parade commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia.[8] As an open reprisal to their pursuit of an independent foreign policy, the US Congress passed a law last year, threatening to apply sanctions to countries recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence. This would affect Nauru.[9] In spite of the pressure from Washington, the Nauruan government is remaining steadfast in its position - and in January, received, for the first time, the South Ossetian foreign minister.[10] In April rumors began to spread that the Chinese military would be allowed to open a base on Vanuatu, which both countries' governments deny.[11] Experts nevertheless maintain that a military presence on Vanuatu, in the long run, could be a strategic option for China.

"America's Gateway to the Indo-Pacific"

Accordingly, western powers are beginning to intensify their influence activities in the southwestern Pacific. In early June, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore - a sort of Asian Munich Security Conference, where top German politicians have also been participating over the past few years [12] - the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis announced the US would be expanding its activities in the Pacific rim countries, declaring that the region is "America's gateway to the Indo-Pacific."[13] The governments of, at least, some of the countries in the region, show themselves to be receptive, in principle, to all sides. "We welcome anyone who supports us, because we can really use any help we can get," the Minister of the Economy of the Fiji Republic, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, told the German press in early June. Whether that help comes from Australia, Germany or China, is unimportant to his country.[14]

"More Australian Leadership"

In fact, besides the United States, it is particularly the Australian political establishment that is again showing an increased interest in the southwest Pacific. As Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) explained, the region needs "more Australian leadership," if necessary, Australia must also engage its military.[15] The ASPI is co-financed by Australia's Defense Ministry.[16] Leading associates of the think tank have taken part also in the Körber Foundation's Bergedorf Round Table.[17] Australia is the Federal Republic of Germany's traditional regional ally. Since 2016, Berlin has been engaged in a regular dialogue with Canberra at the foreign and defense ministry levels - also to reinforce Berlin's standing in the Pacific realm.[18] Last year German business associations were calling for entering free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.[19] Last, but not least, beyond its cooperation with Australia, the German government now wants to expand its influence in the Pacific realm which is rapidly growing in importance - also by reinforcing its development aid. german-foreign-policy.com will soon report.

 

[1] See also War Games in the Pacific.

[2] The states are: the Cook Islands (not independent, associated with New Zealand), Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue (without diplomatic relations with Germany, not independent and associated with New Zealand), Palau, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. In addition, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is still a US colony.

[3] The ANZUS Pact, founded in 1951, is the equivalent to NATO in the South Pacific. Since 1986, New Zealand has been partially suspended from the pact, as the government at the time declared the country wants to be a free of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

[4] China announces initiatives to expand ties with PIF member countries. pg.china-embassy.org 24.11.2003.

[5] Lucy Craymer: China Seeks to Star in South Pacific. wsj.com 27.04.2012.

[6] Ben Doherty: Secret Russian arms donation to Fiji raises concerns of bid for Pacific influence. theguardian.com 22.01.2016.

[7] Roman Madaus: The Bear Returns to the South Pacific: Russia Sends Arms to Fiji. thediplomat.com 09.042016.

[8] Tiny Pacific Nation of Vanuatu to Join Motley Crew at China's WWII Anniversary Parade. time.com 01.09.2015.

[9] Maximilian Hess: Congress Pushes Tougher Line on Russia. intersectionproject.eu 06.06.2017.

[10] David X. Noack: Signal an die Großen. junge Welt, 27.01.2018.

[11] Dan McGarry: Baseless rumours - Why talk of a Chinese military installation in Vanuatu misses the point. theguardian.com 11.04.2018.

[12] See also Asiens Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz.

[13] Sorgen um Chinas Vordringen im Westpazifik. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 04.06.2018.

[14] "Uns ist gleich, ob die Hilfe aus China oder Deutschland kommt". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 04.06.2018.

[15] Peter Jennings: Leadership requires courage in the Pacific. aspi.org.au 14.04.2018.

[16] About Us. aspi.org.au [ohne Datum].

[17] Teilnehmer des 154. Bergedorfer Gesprächskreises "Frieden und Sicherheit in Asien-Pazifik" - Jakarta, 1.-3. November 2013. koerber-stiftung.de [ohne Datum].

[18] See also Springboard into the Pacific Region.

[19] See also Foray into Down Under.