A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific
President Biden cancels Papua New Guinea visit and Quad summit
President Biden had a busy week planned in the Pacific next week. An historic visit to Papua New Guinea on 22 May and then on to Sydney for the ‘Quad’ or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India. Domestic budget concerns and a looming American debt crisis forced the President to cancel these visits and remain at home. However, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will attend in his place and will also meet with leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum.
The President noted the importance of the Quad stating “The Quad is an important body and we want to make sure that it occurs at leadership level” and suggesting that there will be an opportunity for the leaders to meet informally at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima on 19 May. On 18 May, the White House issues a statement saying that President Biden would visit the Pacific later this year.
Both cancelled visits were important because they demonstrate America’s commitment to building strong relationships in the Pacific. The visits also contribute information about developing American collective security plans in the Pacific.
Papua New Guinea’s position is enormously important to Australia and the United State in any South West Pacific conflict because it provides a counter to potential Chinese bases in the Solomon Islands. Further, Xi Jin Ping, China’s leader has visited Papua New Guinea; and some will interpret President Biden’s cancelation of his visit as America not valuing Pacific relationships.
Papua New Guinean concerns over United States security agreement
On 17 May, Radio New Zealand reported concerns within the Papua New Guinean government about the proposed security agreement with the United States. The report highlighted local concerns about Papua New Guinea being drawn into Sino-American competition and contributing to further militarisation of the Pacific.
This concern is often raised by Pacific nations, and is understandable. New Zealand and most of the smaller Pacific Island nations are ‘nuclear free’ and generally want to stay out of major power conflict. However, there is a delicate balance to be struck because an unfortunate reality of international affairs is that regardless of whether a nation wants to be involved in conflict; sometimes there is no choice. Ukrainians would have been happy not to be fighting a war to defend their country. However, a hard reality is that the international rules-based order that protects the freedoms and sovereignty of smaller nations; is built upon military deterrence.
Unfortunately, if Sino-American competition increases smaller Pacific nations will be drawn into it. This means smaller Pacific nations need to be thinking now about the future. Whether they stumble into defence agreements late, with terms imposed upon them. Or; pro-actively engage and retain opportunities to negotiate and set their terms of engagement with major powers.
US Secretary of Defence proposes 40% increase in Pacific Deterrence Initiative budget
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative is a line in the United States Department of Defence budget. Speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, the Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin said that this year’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative budget request is for an increase of 40%; or an increase to $ 9.1 billion.
The Secretary did not mince words stating that “The People’s Republic of China is our only competitor, with both the intent and increasingly the capacity to reshape the international system to suit its autocratic preferences.” Both China and the United States are investing heavily in Pacific competition and earlier this year China increased its defence budget.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative is a strictly military budget line that is used for projects that help develop America’s ability to militarily deter China by being able to rapidly deploy land, sea and air power in the region. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative includes funding for the following activities:
- Improving American military capabilities such as improved air defence networks, new naval equipment, more long-range missiles and improvements to logistics capabilities including pre-positioning supplies.
- Experimentation to test new ideas and tactics.
- Supporting other Pacific militaries to be able to work with American forces.
- International exercises with allies and partners.
- Building or developing defence infrastructure like runways and military bases in the Pacific.
United States government budgets are tight, and Secretary Austin may not get the 40% increase that he is requesting but his testimony demonstrates the Biden administrations commitment to compete in the Pacific.
Australia’s Foreign Minister identifies need to engage more in the Pacific
Penny Wong, Australian Foreign Minister has worked hard this year to thaw the Sino-Australian relationship and to reach out into the Pacific building and strengthening relationships.
Last week, she spoke about Australia’s role in the region stating that “Australia’s interests lie in the region. And Australia’s interests lie in ensuring that the regional architecture and regional institutions are protected. And our engagement is predicated on that foundation.” Ms Wong’s discussion also acknowledged that Australia is not as well positioned as it should be with regards to relationships with its neighbours.
The point is important, in recent years Australia has been less pro-active managing relationships in the region. Last year’s security arrangement between Solomon Islands and China is an example of how Australia’s diplomatic relationships with its neighbours have weakened. Further, the impact of the AUKUS deal should not be underestimated, many Pacific nations are uneasy about the region’s militarisation and that the deal was not discussed with Australia’s neighbours.
Australia, is in a tough position because China is clearly committed to extending its influence in the region, probably at Australia’s expense. Simultaneously, Australia is committed to working with the United States to deter Chinese influence in the Pacific; and avert possible armed conflict. Australia and the United States both understand that peace-time diplomacy includes working hard to secure the bases and local support required to be successful in any future conflict. Essentially, that if they are not countering Chinese diplomacy, they risk being on the back foot in a future conflict.
United States and Australian strategy is based on collective security, or a large group of nations working together to deter aggression. Russia’s experience of collective security in Ukraine probably influences China’s plans for re-unification of Taiwan.
However, the historically benign security environment of the South Pacific means that many nations are less concerned about possible conflict, trade extensively with China and are not as willing to join Australia in committing to support the United States.
This situation could weaken potential American led collective security arrangements and both Australia and the United States are working hard to develop relationships in the Pacific to mitigate this risk. An implication of non-engagement is that smaller nations lose the ability to influence United States policy. America is building a collective security framework in the region; and smaller nations that actively contribute will have more influence over future policy and decision-making than those that do not.
Penny Wong has a hard job ahead of her; supporting American security policy while delicately maintaining relationships with China. And; the smaller nations of the Pacific have a tough decision. Do they support America’s agenda and contribute meaningfully to Pacific collective security? Or; do they sit on the fence? Taking the benefits of Chinese trade but accepting the risk that they give up their ability to influence American policy. Or; that if a conflict with China or another power does develop the United States may not help to protect their interests.
Thai election update – Progressives win… will there be a coup?
In the last Pacific Brief, we suggested watching the Thai election; and the event did not fail to deliver an interesting result. It was predicted that the liberal Pheu Thai (For Thais) party would win a landslide victory; and be accompanied into government by an even more progressive party – Move Forward.
Instead, the very progressive party – Move Forward, won the largest share of the vote and is putting together a six-party proposed government with Pheu Thai. The hurdle is that any new government must be approved by the Senate. The Senate is appointed by the military and although supposed to be impartial is aligned with conservatives in the military and Thailand’s aristocracy.
Thailand’s lower house has 500 seats, the Senate 250. Constitutionally, the Senate can be over-ruled by a 70% majority in the lower house, 350 votes. And; the question over the next couple of weeks is whether the new progressive majority can gather sufficient political support to confirm a government? Or; will the Senate block formation of a progressive government?
If formation of a new government is blocked there is likely to be protest and the possibility of military intervention. Thailand has a long history of military intervention in government. Military involvement in politics weakens both a nation’s governance and its military’s war-fighting ability. Thailand is a key security partner in America’s Indo-Pacific network of alliances and political instability in the nation undermines its contribution to wider collective security. Further, social unrest provides opportunities for hostile intelligence agencies to spread disinformation and create more division. Thailand is an area for keen Pacific observers to keep watching in coming weeks.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger