Why the West Is Losing the Pacific to China, the Arab League, and Just About Everyone Else

Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga. The small South Pacific country of the Kingdom of Tonga has been busy. In a two-week period around the start of September, separate military delegations from the US, New Zealand, Australia, UK, India and the UN stopped by for a visit. The French sent a frigate and a military aircraft. China sent two warships.

2010-11-22-FriendshipBridges3.jpg Chinese Navy Ship Visiting The Kingdom of Tonga

Why all this activity in a country of 100,000? There is real concern that the West may be losing critical influence in the Pacific, while others such as China, and even the Arab League, are dramatically extending their reach. The implications are global, and may already have affected UN Security Council voting. It wasn't always this way. The Pacific is the West's to lose.

Recent history of geopolitics in the Pacific -- Western Heydays

From a security perspective, since WWII, the nations of the Pacific have been considered part of the West (and in particular the American) security zone. However, especially since the end of the Cold War, the larger Western powers, including the US and UK, started to lose interest in the region. There was a sense that the West had 'won' and so strategic concerns could take a back seat to commercial ones.

That meant standing down what were considered primarily security or power projection-related postings. For example, around five years ago, the UK shut three high commissions (embassies) in the Pacific, including the one in Tonga. From a Western security perspective, the day-to-day management of the region was essentially handed over to Australia and New Zealand (A/NZ).

Unfortunately, while there is no questioning the deep bonds between A/NZ and the nations of the Pacific, some of the A/NZ policies in the region seem to have an old-style colonial bent. Countries like the Kingdom of Tonga, for example, are often seen by A/NZ largely as places to export excess or subpar products, and from where to import cheap seasonal labor (for example, Tongan seasonal workers pick New Zealand's kiwi crop).

Nor have Australia and New Zealand been consistently helpful with international trade agreements.

In 2005, for example, when Tonga signed on to the WTO, Oxfam's Phil Bloomer said: "The terms of Tonga's accession package are appalling", worse than any other than Armenia. According to Oxfam, Tonga was allowed to impose tariffs of no more than 20% on any product. By comparison, the US can apply a 350% tariff on beef imports, and the EU can apply an equivalent tariff of over 300% on sugar imports. Oxfam NZ Executive Director, Barry Coates said: "To our shame, New Zealand, as a member of the working party that negotiated Tonga's accession, has participated in this process."

In short, until recently, Australia and New Zealand have largely been practicing classic old school sphere-of-influence economic and political policies in the Pacific, while larger Western allies, such as the US and UK focused on other matters.

Geopolitics as it is -- Looking for new friends

The problem is these sphere-of-influence policies are a based on a Cold War-era model, in which the traditional allies are the only game in town and so can decide policy in a relative geopolitical vacuum.

Those days are long gone. In an increasingly multipolar world, all sorts of new foreign policy options are available, especially as the enormous value of the island nations of the Pacific becomes increasingly clear.

From a geopolitical perspective, the nations of the Pacific offer (among other things):

  • Sea-lanes and ports in relatively calm waters (increasingly important as China, in particular, increases trade with South America);
  • Access to fisheries (something increasingly important as the Atlantic is fished out);
  • Agricultural exports (especially important as concerns over food security increase in countries such as China);
  • Unknown but potentially valuable underwater resources;
  • Geostrategic military basing sites;
  • Crucial votes in international fora (Pacific Island countries represent around a dozen votes in the UN - a substantial voting block).

Given what is at stake, other nations are understandably keen to take advantage of discontent with traditional partners in order to advance their own position in the Pacific.

West drops the ball, China picks it up

2010-11-22-TongaandChinaPM.jpg Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (R) shakes hands with Dr. Fred Sevele, prime minister of Tonga, at the opening of the the First Ministerial Conference of the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in Nadi, Fiji, April 5, 2006.

For example, following the 'pro-democracy' riots in Tonga in 2006, A/NZ sent in troops, but they didn't provide access to funding needed to rebuild. China jumped into the gap and ended providing the major loan for rebuilding downtown. So, ironically, due to a lack of support by democratic allies, a 'pro-democracy' action ended up indebting Tonga even more to a non-democratic nation.

The China loan (along with other aspects of the growing Tonga-China relationship) has international repercussions. When I asked one member of Tonga's delegation to the Copenhagen climate conference what the country's negotiating position would be, I was told: "whatever China says it is, we owe them hundreds of millions of dollars."

Similarly, when A/NZ tried to isolate Fiji after the 2006 coup, that left the field wide open for China, which quickly developed deep ties with Fiji.

Discontent with the A/NZ handling of Fiji also gave momentum to the Pacific Small Island Developing States group (P-SIDS). P-SIDS does not include Australia and New Zealand and is tentatively charting a new geopolitical course for the Pacific.

Arab league on the playing field

2010-11-22-PacificAndArabLeaders.jpg Arab League and Pacific Island leaders meet in Abu Dhabi, June 2010

Members of this grouping recently met in Abu Dhabi with the members of the Arab League. While the Arab League pledged tens of millions of dollars aid and a growing trade relationship with the Pacific nations, Pacific leaders supported the Arab League's call for a nuclear-free Middle East (which targets Iran and Israel).

P-SIDS may have given even more tangible support to the Arab League in the latest voting round for seats on the UN Security Council. Australia was backing Canada for a seat while the United Arab Emirates was opposing.

According to international relations expert Dr Richard Herr from the University of Tasmania, in the Pacific ''There was a sentiment that Australia went too far, that it was pushing its own objectives to get a seat down the track." The vote was secret, but Canada lost. Fiji, for one, has openly said it didn't vote for Canada. If the P-SIDS did back the UAE position, and continue along that path, it could mean a whole new ball game in the UN.

So where are we now?

Geopolitically, the impression is growing that, while the nations of the Pacific are still solidly part of the West, desperation caused by out of date economic and political policies (compounded by ongoing costly damage caused environmental change as well as demographic challenges) is forcing leaders to look to anyone who can help.

From a Western perspective, this is a potential growing security concern, especially given the growing tensions between China and the US (on display, for example, in the South China Sea). The Pacific is once again a front line.

American Samoa's member of the US Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, bluntly expressed concern that the "inept policies and heavy-handed actions" of the Australian and New Zealand governments were putting American interests in the region at risk. He also pointed out that the interest of New Zealand and Australia may not always be the same as the interests of America.

Not coincidentally, there has been a sudden and growing interest from Washington in the Pacific islands. Apart from the visits to Tonga, on November 7, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a point of visiting American Samoa, and the US announced the reopening of USAID posts in Fiji with a budget of US$21 million.

A few days later, the Kingdom of Tonga received another visitor -- the highest ranking one of the season: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. Interestingly, part of Mullen's support team for the visit included top regionally based UK government personnel. These are symbolic visits. Clearly, there is concern in Washington and London about the management of the region.

The Big Boys are back. And not just in the islands. On the same trip Clinton visited American Samoa, she established a new strategic relationship with New Zealand. And in Australia she was joined by Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to discuss base sharing in Australia as concerns rise that the US may need to downsize its Japan-based bases.

The bases would be part of the US's new "forward-deployed diplomacy" in the region. The generally given reason for the need for the bases is to be able to aid in the case of humanitarian disasters, though analysts agree that the real reason is concern over China. Interestingly, India, especially after President Obama's recent trip there, may become an increasingly important US partner in the region.

What next?

The Pacific is the West's to lose. But to engage effectively it needs to understand that the days of old-fashioned colonial engagement have to end.

For example, one promising initiative is the Tonga Energy Road Map, an exciting vision for renewable energy development, lauded by the World Bank, IRENA, and others as a model for the future. Unfortunately, parts of the Road Map are already being undermined by traditional partners.

In spite of signing on to a Road Map Declaration that include the key principle of no tied aid, New Zealand is currently in the process of offering aid for a solar power plant, but only if that plant is built by a New Zealand government-owned company. Details of the agreement have yet to be released, however if the plant results in tying Tongan consumers to high-energy costs (or unreliable supply), it could be severally detrimental to the economy. It is of concern that the contract was not open for competitive bidding.

New Zealand and other have to start to understand that in small, fragile economies, these sorts of agreements can seriously undermine domestic growth and stability in nations that should be natural allies, forcing them in to situations where they look to others for outside help.

Tied aid may give specific sectors of the New Zealand economy a small, short-term advantage, but it can compromise the security of the region, and ultimately of New Zealand (and of the West).

In these changing times, if one weaken ones allies, one weakens oneself.

Of course, much can be said about the way others, such as China, engage in the region. But it is particularly problematic when free market, democratic nations, with deep and natural ties to the Pacific, enact policies that may have the ultimate effect of impeding the development of both the free market and democracy in nations that are considered allies.

For the West to create security in the Pacific (something that would reap benefits around the world) all it takes is developing equitable, long-term partnerships with countries like the Kingdom of Tonga.

The military visits are a start, but they need to be followed up with academic scholarships to the US/UK/Canada/etc., direct flights, low-tariff market access for Pacific products, access to low interest loans, and others indicators that the engagement is real, deep, and there for the long run.

If the West isn't there for the nations of the Pacific, someone else will be.

2010-11-22-ChinaCookIslands2.jpg Sign at the construction site of the Cook Islands Courthouse, financed and built by China