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The Geo-Strategic Pacific Islands

Traditionally, the South Pacific islands have been considered strategically insignificant. However, the need for resources, and the geopolitical shift towards Asia-Pacific have prompted nations to realize that these small island states control large resource-rich ocean areas and are increasingly geostrategic.

“Five trillion dollars of commerce rides on the (Asia-Pacific) sea lanes each year, and you people are sitting right in the middle of it.”

- USPACOM chief Admiral Samuel Locklear, Pacific Island Forum, Cook Islands, 2012.

By Tevita Motutalo

Sep. 29 – From August 27 – 31, leaders from countries as far afield as India, China and the U.S. converged on the tiny Aitutaki Island in the South Pacific to meet members of the 16-country Pacific Island Forum. The need for resources and geopolitical rebalancing has raised the profile of the region so much that, for the first time, a U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, attended the Forum — a clear demonstration that the U.S. is serious about its Pacific “pivot” to Asia.

The reason is China. In March last year, Clinton told the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee about the region: “Let’s just talk straight realpolitik. We are in a competition with China. China is in there every day in every way, trying to figure out how it’s going to come in behind us, come in under us.”

Last weekend, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta passed by New Zealand reinforcing Clinton’s Forum debut, and China’s Secretary of National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo returned from Fiji after inking several economic cooperation pacts with the military government there including Chinese assistance for cultural and educational development and teaching the Chinese language in the Fijian national curriculum. According to Wu, Sino-Fijian trade was worth $ 172 million last year, up from 34% in the year prior.

India’s delegation to the Forum was high profile, led by Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed. Apart from resources, and strategic positioning, the Pacific also controls a relatively large number of votes in international fora, and India is keen to secure support for its bid for a seat for the United Nation’s Security Council.

But one of India’s strongest allies in the region wasn’t invited – Fiji. A key item on the Forum’s agenda was whether or not to readmit Fiji. Fiji has been central to Indian interests in the region. Following the 2006 coup, at the urging of Australia and New Zealand, sanctions were brought against Fiji and, whilst also suspended from the Forum in 2009. When India attempted to assist, it was warded off by Canberra. Consequently, the Fijian regime fell in deep with the remaining alternative active player in the region, China, one of the biggest investors in the region thereby receiving generous economic and military cooperation from Beijing. The sanctions are of PIF-origin, and as China is not a member of the Forum, it is not bound to obey. These sanctions, issued by Australia, New Zealand, and the EU, resulted in the reduction of their aid assistance, a restriction on visas or transit for any member of the Fijian regime, and of course on trade.

The welfare of the more than 300,000 Fijian Indians in Fiji, and more amongst the Pacific states, is a core interest for India: a united, stable region decreases complications for region’s bloc support for India.

Fiji’s continued suspension is fragmenting the region. Isolated, Fiji shepherded a more consolidated, mineral-rich, Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG)- though created in 1983 it remained docile within the Forum until, following Fiji’s lead, it was formalised in 2007 taking on a “Look North” foreign policy cline. This sub-regional grouping includes the majority ethnic Melanesian nations of Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, and is backed by China (which has built the MSG secretariat in Vanuatu). In response, last year, as relations continued to deteriorate, New Zealand by proxy, helped create a competing “Polynesian Leaders Group.” comprised of majority ethically Polynesian nations.

This use of racial politics – the attempt to pit against each other the normally friendly Melanesians and Polynesians – was spurred and sponsored by Australia and New Zealand because it seemed to suit their short-term political goals. Instead, it is creating regional instability, something that ultimately benefits China. China itself is also bringing volatility to the region, with increasing cases of crime and drug and human trafficking linked to Chinese nationals.

Australia and New Zealand can reverse this trend. Just before and since after this year’s Forum, both country’s leaders have started echoing reintegration of Fiji into regional bloc, lifting sanctions, and also even further to incentivize positive developments that will lead to elections in 2014, as promised by the Bainimarama government.

The U.S. understands the implications and, before the Forum, expressed its expectation that Fiji be reinstated into the Forum. In spite of wide support, Australia and New Zealand blocked the move.

This raises questions about the priorities of some policy makers in Australia and New Zealand. They cite two reasons for the continued marginalisation of Fiji:

  1. If Fiji relations are normalised, it may grow as a more important regional political and economic hub (given its central location even now most of the regional organisations’ headquarters are located in Suva), challenging Canberra and Wellington’s role as the go-to places for Pacific investment and regional insight.
  2. While most in Wellington and Canberra undoubtedly value their strong relationship with the West, some policy-makers seem to be tempering that with a desire to have stronger economic and—as a result increasingly political–ties with China.

The second point is raising the most concerns in global capitals. Recently, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called on the U.S. to “share” the Pacific with China. And New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English declared that “Australia is a province of China, and New Zealand is a suburb of Australia.”

While Australia’s stated reason for the exclusion of Fiji from the Forum is its abolition of democracy, some influential figures in Canberra seem to have no problem engaging with even more autocratic governments that, unlike Fiji, have no plans to reintroduce democracy. In August, for example, Keating justified engagement with China by writing: “If we are pressed into the notion only democratic governments are legitimate, our future is limited to action within some confederation of democracies.”

Australian and New Zealand foreign policy is going through an internal civil war, with one side willing to sacrifice values and the trust of its traditional allies for the perception of economic gain from China (Wikileaks exposed that Australia pushed Nauru to derecognise Taiwan in favour of Beijing), and the other solidly part of the West.

Myopic and petty regional policies of Fiji’s marginalisation threw the door wide open for, and only benefits, China. Challenges to the region are heightening and so apparent, the U.S. now has to intervene directly to try to reinvigorate a West-friendly Pacific.

Clinton declared the region “strategically and economically vital and becoming more so,” yet “big enough for all of us.” But her presence was signal intent to counter Chinese inroads.

Beijing already assumes it has neutered Australia (and, presumably, doesn’t even bother about New Zealand). An editorial in the state-run People’s Daily—on 30th August in response to the US’s aircraft carrier presence at the Forum—stated that, in the Pacific, “The U.S. may have evaluated that Australia alone is no longer enough to hold China at bay.”

For all the inroads created by inept policies in Fiji, Wu is reported to have taken a swipe at sanctions imposed on Fiji, and with a symbolic gesture, as guarantor of Fijian national interests, will oppose countries that are trying to “bully” Fiji. It effectively means China does not owe Australia and New Zealand any favours for misplacing their cards. Secondly, as China thinks its interests are linked with those of the island countries, this gives China opportunities for wide justification to intervene in South Pacific security – especially given the expectation afforded to it as a global power.

The divisive politics on show at the Forum need to stop. A first step, something that India can assist with, is welcoming Fiji back to the family, and helping it through its democratisation.

This article was originally published by Gateway House, September 27, 2012

Related Reading

China’s Shadow Looms Over Clinton’s Asian Trip

China Trumps ASEAN in the South China Sea

Outcomes of APEC’s 10th Energy Ministerial Meeting

China and India Improve Ties, India Wary of U.S. Presence in the Asia Pacific

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