Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update – The Pacific region in 2024 – An overview


Currently, the Pacific is facing a range of security issues and 2024 is set to be another difficult year.  Alongside Sino-American competition several other trends are contribute to instability and escalating tension. This brief identifies key military and security trends in the Pacific.  

Sino-American competition, the ‘Big Picture’

The key security trend in the Pacific in 2024, remains Sino-American competition.  Although, the risk of direct confrontation is remote, rivalry between the two powers influences every security discussion in the Pacific. So, it is important to understand the underlying pressures that drive competition.  China and the US are economically interdependent but have radically different world-views.  Currently, China’s economic prosperity is based on participation in an American led international legal and financial system (often referred to as the ‘rules-based order’). China is keen to challenge US hegemony and develop an alternative system that allows more freedom to act aggressively to achieve its goals (i.e. absorbing Taiwan) while remaining economically sustainable. 

Therefore, China is working globally to build financial systems, economic partnerships and alliances that support this objective. An example is courting the ‘Global South,’ countries like India, Brazil and South Africa that are ambivalent about the Ukraine War and are increasingly looking away from the US and Europe for leadership in global affairs.  During the Ukraine War, China provided an interpretation war separate from US and Europe, establishing themselves as a potential security partner for nations that do not wish to be part of a Russo-American power struggle. Essentially, aiming to create a new sphere of influence, that in future could insulate it from US led economic sanctions within the emerging Global South. 

The Pacific is the region that this competition is most direct because China is a trading nation and most commerce is moved by sea.  A key determinant of Sino-American rivalry in the Pacific is geography, and the US currently has a strategic advantage because its allies and partners surround China.   In the event of conflict, China can be isolated within a ring of US partners and allies.  The US maintains bases across Micronesia and is allies with Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand.  Additionally, it strongly supports Taiwan and further south the Straits of Malaca, the most important shipping route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans are controlled by Singapore and Malaysia, both members of the Five Power Defence Arrangement with US allies and partners Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

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Chinese strategy is based on responding to this situation. Looking at the map it is easy to see why China is committed to trying to secure the ‘9-Dash Line’ claim in the South China Sea (roughly indicated by the red circle) because bases in this area provide a defensible maritime route through South East Asia to the mainland. 

In simple terms, China needs to ship manufactured goods out and bring resources like oil into the country.  Its strategy is based on circumnavigating the naval dominance of the US and its allies to achieve these objectives.  Unfortunately, China is also facing a range of domestic economic and demographic problems.  This increases political tension within China and could incentivise higher risk strategies. 


China makes no secret of its ambition to re-absorb the island and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will remain a popular subject of discussion in mainstream media this year.  However, all analysis points to an invasion being unlikely to succeed. Taiwan’s strong defence force and geography make it an exceptionally tough target and it is supported by the US that’s local allies like Japan and the Philippines provide bases and military support.  Further, an invasion of Taiwan could encourage a European intervention, the United Kingdom is almost certain to support the US and NATO committing forces to a conflict is increasingly likely. China’s chances of military success are minimal.

Even if China can use its superiority in area denial precision-guided missiles to create a ‘cordon sanitare’ around the island preventing direct US and allied intervention, the nation can still be blockaded by the ring of nations that surround it.  Therefore, even without a nuclear escalation China faces the inevitability of a catastrophic defeat, meaning that in the short term an invasion is highly unlikely.


North Korea

North Korea exists as a proxy of China, without its regular financial aid the nation would collapse. The peninsular encloses the Yellow Sea and is directly east of Beijing so provides China with ‘strategic depth,’ or is a buffer against an attack from Japan or the United States.  

Additionally, North Korea’s belligerence and military capability provide a useful diversion for the US and its local allies; South Korea and Japan.  At strategic level, China can use North Korea’s activity to divert attention and resources away from other areas. In 2023, for instance we saw escalation on the peninsular concurrent with increased Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.  

Bernard Brodie, an American academic who helped establish the theory of nuclear deterrence, believed that the power of nuclear weapons existed not in their use; but in the threat of their use.  Reasoning that any use of nuclear weapons was likely to be so catastrophic that that everybody involved in a conflict lost.  China’s use of North Korea is analogous, there is utility in maintaining a nuclear armed proxy, a de-stabilising threat able to be used to extract concessions from other nations in exchange for China’s usefulness controlling North Korea. 

However, once North Korea goes too far, that utility disappears and the question is – Does China benefit from another war on the Korea Peninsular?  A war that will inevitably bring it into catastrophic confrontation with the US. In my opinion China has little to gain and much to lose from letting North Korea go to war.

Therefore, North Korean posturing and threatening will continue but a war on the Korean Peninsular is highly unlikely. 


South China Sea  

The South China Sea is a key point of tension in the Pacific region. China’s claim is known colloquially as the ‘9 or 11 Dash Line’ and it includes areas claimed by Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.  Looking at China’s geographic isolation it is easy to understand why this area is important strategically. By securing it China protects its international trade routes. However, China’s claims are not internationally recognised and the nation uses hybrid tactics to enforce its claim. 

First, it uses a pseudo-legal justification to assert its ‘right’ to occupy islands, shoals and reefs or to fish within the South China Sea.  Although international courts do not support the claim.  China continues enforces its claim using para-military internal security forces like the Coastguard and militia.  Using these forces instead of the military, plays to the narrative that the area is in fact Chinese territory i.e. it is an internal security issue or law enforcement matter rather than military activity.  

However, China’s Coastguard has large and very capable vessels that are easily able to physically push, bump or even ram other nation’s vessels.  Any nation’s navy or air force that sinks a Chinese Coastguard or militia vessel risks escalation and military conflict. Additionally, China is building bases in the sea by occupying islands and building artificial islands on shoals or reefs.  In a military conflict these bases provide a web of platforms that precision-guided missiles can be fired from for area denial.

Unlike the Korean Peninsula, or Taiwan the South China Sea’s tensions involve lots of small and aggressive para-military activities that are difficult to monitor and control.  A factor that makes the risk of accidental escalation higher. 

Further, the counters to hybrid war tactics are; transparent rule of law and deterrence.  The key issue is that to stop China’s para-military hybrid operations its competitors need to demonstrate their resolve to physically confront tactics like ramming or armed threats by militia increasing the likelihood of escalation.  



Since China is at risk of losing access to the sea via the Pacific it looks elsewhere to secure trade routes and is engaged in its ‘Belt and Road’ programme that provides alternatives including; the China – Pakistan Corridor, Eurasian Landbridge, Central Asian Corridor and corridors in India and South East Asia.  Oil and gas pipelines are also being built through Russia, Pakistan and Central Asia to guarantee access to energy supplies.

In terms of the Pacific, Myanmar is an area to watch in 2024. The country’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a military junta in 2021 that now faces considerable pressure from many long-running insurgencies. In October 2023, the military government controlled only about 40% of the nation’s land area.  Additionally, an alliance of anti-government forces is currently on the offensive capturing many bases and several towns in November.  Early this year the Kokang Self-Administered Zone’s capital Laukkai was captured buy insurgent forces. 

Much of this military activity is happening in the north of Myanmar near the Chinese border.  The fighting destabilises the border.  Further, by supporting insurgent groups China could develop opportunities to shape a new, more pro-Chinese government.  Myanmar is rich in oil and natural gas and provides a route to the Indian Ocean, so China will be closely following the situation and observers of the region should be too.  


Melanesia and the Pacific Islands

Asia and the North West Pacific are tightly ‘locked down’ by US alliances and relationships.  Additionally, the nations in this part of the Pacific are large, well-established and generally well governed.  This means that they are harder to influence using hybrid tactics.

The opposite conditions apply in the South West Pacific, many Pacific Island and Melanesian nations are small, poor and lack strong institutional governance.  Papua New Guinea’s recent rioting caused by a police strike over late pay is a good example of institutional instability in this region. A factor making these nations easier to influence either; openly using financial aid or covertly by acquiring political influence. Additionally, their small size encourages direct pressure using using para-military forces (for instance militia vessels protecting fishing fleets operating illegally in a small nation’s territorial waters).  

Further, the region faces a range of de-stabilising issues from the impacts of climate change and deep-sea mining to several indigenous groups seeking independence. For instance, the long running war Indonesia is fighting in West Papua / Irian Jaya. The region also suffers from historic assumptions of some larger nations that sometimes do not to appreciate that Pacific Island and Melanesian nations can have different perspectives on key issues.  For example, Australia and the US’s reaction to Solomon Islands increasing relationship with China indicates their assumption that they will always be Solomon Islands primary security relationship.  Likewise, the angry reaction of Pacific nations to the sudden announcement of the AUKUS submarine deal. 

In 2024, expect to see more activity in this region particularly in Melanesia.  Any war in the Pacific requires land bases. Melanesia is strategically located and bases here extend the range of China’s precision-guided missile area denial strategy; and can also directly threaten US ally, Australia. 

Additionally, expect to see an increase in the negotiating power of smaller nations that are quickly coming to terms with their strategic importance for larger powers.  It is likely that development and military aid will flow into the Pacific in coming years as local politicians negotiate harder. 


NATO activity in the Pacific 

NATO’s 2022’s strategic concept identified China as a threat to Europe stating that “The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” Additionally, at the Vilnius summit Reuters reported Jens Stoltenberg NATO Secretary General stating that “China is increasingly challenging the rules-based international order, refusing to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine, threatening Taiwan, and carrying out a substantial military buildup.” Importantly, Vilnius summit attendees included Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan indicating the increasingly close relationship between NATO and its Pacific partners.  

Last year, NATO discussed opening a Pacific office in Japan, alliance member’s ships deployed on freedom of navigation patrols in the Taiwan Strait and German paratroopers and fighter aircraft exercised in Australia. And, vice versa the deployment of an Australian E 7A Wedgetail surveillance aircraft to Germany in October 2023 to support European intelligence gathering activities in the Ukraine War. This year, expect to see NATO’s presence in the region increase, and for the Japanese, South Korean, Australian and New Zealand militaries to work more closely with NATO.


A Pacific defence treaty like NATO?  

Currently, there is discussion in the US about the development of an Indo-Pacific alliance like NATO.   Asia and the Pacific already have a range of defence arrangements and treaties including:

  • The Quadrilateral Dialogue (India, Japan, US and Australia).
  • The Five Power Defence Arrangement (Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand)
  • AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US). 
  • US bi-lateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines and Australia. 
  • The American, Japanese and Korean Trilateral Pact.

This idea has history, the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was a military partnership designed to block the expansion of communism in the Indo-Pacific region existed between 1954 and 1977.  SEATO did not attract South East Asian members and failed evolve into a sustainable organisation like NATO.  Historically, the US preferred to work directly with countries allowing for more direct influence than collegial arrangements provide.  Further, as academic Brad Glosserman stated in a recent Japan Times article ‘How NATO can be made to fit the Indo-Pacific’ any new alliance must contend with the region’s colonial history. Glosserman stating that “In Southeast Asia, there is no appetite for a Western-inspired security structure. The scars of European colonialism and imperialism are still fresh. Newly independent nations have not been willing to relinquish hard-won sovereignty; they worry about subordination to Western governments and getting sucked into their proxy wars.” Sentiments that probably apply to nations throughout the Pacific. 

However, the situation is evolving rapidly. China’s aggressive positions regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea combined with North Korean belligerence are threats that effect maritime trade in a way that the communist insurgencies of the 1950s and 1960s did not.  Further, as the rise of the ‘Global South’ indicates newer nations are increasingly willing to assert independent foreign policy positions, possibly including formation of new regional alliances.  Therefore, it seems likely that during 2024 discussion about Indo-Pacific alliances will continue and may progress rapidly.  



In 2024, the AUKUS alliance will continue to develop with the US, UK and Australia increasing inter-operability and developing a more closely shared military / technology industrial complex.  The first ‘pillar’ of AUKUS is developing a nuclear-powered submarine capability in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).  The plan involves considerable investment over a period of about thirty years and RAN personnel have already started familiarisation training. By 2027, the Royal and US Navies will start to deploy Virginnia and Astute Class nuclear powered attack submarines permanently in Australia.  

In 2032, Australia is scheduled to receive three American, Virginnia Class submarines. The programme culminates with Australia building five SSN-AUKUS Class submarines due to enter service in the mid-2050s.  

AUKUS’s second pillar focuses on technology, the key components of which are:

  • Cyber security and computer technology.
  • Research and development of hypersonic missiles and defences against them.
  • Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability, a radar system being developed to monitor activity in deep space.

The key question in 2024 is whether New Zealand will join AUKUS. New Zealand is an ally of Australia, shares a close defence relationship with the UK and used to be an ally of the US. Already, new Prime Minister Chris Luxon has signalled that his government would be open to discussing participation in AUKUS’s second pillar activities.  


Fortress Australia

Last year we discussed the increasing militarisation of Australia’s northern regions. Both Australia and the US developing large bases and improved facilities in and around Darwin and the Northern Territory.  The permanent US presence in Australia is increasing with regular Marine Corp rotations and aircraft permanently stationed in Australia. Further, this year saw NATO member Germany sending soldiers and aircraft to participate in an Australian exercise. 

Australia’s large military bases and facilities provide the US and allies with a ‘launch pad’ for operations in the Pacific. The increasing range of Chinese missiles means that logistics support for a war in Taiwan or South Korea is likely to require bases in Australia.  Additionally, Australia is located close enough for direct and rapid intervention in Melanesia or the Pacific if required. 

Therefore, expect to see more and larger deployments of US and allied military assets to Australia and the further development of the nation’s defence infrastructure.  Further, if there is tension in the region a US build up will be very fast and large, the investment in joint training and infra-structure paying dividends.  


Other players, France and India in the Pacific

A feature of modern geopolitics is the emergence of a multi-polar world order. Unlike the historic two ‘poles’ of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union, today’s world is evolving into a more fragmented, multi-polar world. Nations coalescing geographically or culturally over shared issues rather than in two large, competitive blocks.  Evidence of this trend is the developing ‘Global South,’ an ad hoc coalition of states including India, South Africa and Brazil that are ‘opting out’ of Russo or Sino-American competition; and by doing so providing alternative diplomatic and security partnerships. Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East is another example of an evolving; theologically based grouping of state and non-state actors. 

In the Pacific region, two nations provide alternatives to the Sino-American paradigm; France and India. In 2023, we discussed the activities of France in the Pacific and in 2024 it is likely that this activity will increase. France has colonies in the Pacific and appears to be positioning itself as an alternative to Sino-American politics and is by funding social and defence programmes.   France also opposed NATO plans for a Pacific liaison office. 

Another nation with an interest in South East Asia is India. Since 1991, and the introduction of its ‘Look East’ doctrine India has quietly extended its interests in South East Asia. Approximately 45% of India’s foreign trade is with South East Asia and the success of the doctrine led the Modi government to re-invigorate the programme.  ‘Act East,’ the new policy includes funding infra-structure projects like the Agartala-Akhaura Rail Project (a rail line connecting India and Bangladesh) and the Asian Trilateral Highway (a road connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand).  The policy also includes increased security cooperation with Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam a feature specifically aimed at securing the South China Sea. 

Essentially, India is emerging as a security ‘player’ in the Pacific and this trend is likely to continue as the region becomes wealthier and the nation’s relationship with China becomes more competitive. 


Hybrid war and criminal activity 

An emerging trend around the world is the use of criminal activity by states as a form of hybrid war.  Essentially, criminal activities designed to achieve a wider competitive result and some examples could include:

  • Nation states using criminal activities to raise money. In 2023, the North Korean government was implicated in using cybercrime to raise foreign exchange.  Likewise, it is claimed that Bashir Al Asad’s Syria profits from the drug trade.  
  • Undermining another state’s rule of law by encouraging drug trafficking. Throughout South East Asia and the South West Pacific a significant drug trade exists that undermines the cohesion of communities. In 2022, the Lowery Institute’s analyses ‘Drug trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The impact of transnational crime’ included this statement that summarises the issues “In a region plagued by “unmet development challenges”, transnational crime and illicit drugs are a cross-cutting threat to development, security, and governance in the Pacific.” The Pacific faces significant drug trafficking issues and this provides opportunities for hostile actors (state or non-state) to undermine the rule of law. 
  • Physical attacks on seabed infra-structure.  In September 2022, the Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic was bombed by an un-identified saboteur.  In April 2023, Taiwan claimed that a Chinese ship cut internet cables between Matsu Island and the mainland. In October 2023, three telecommunications cables and a gas pipeline were damaged near Finland when a Chinese cargo ship dragged its anchor across the seafloor.  The Chinese government claims both incidents are accidental.  ‘Accidental’ or unclaimed attacks on infra-structure are a potential hybrid tactic that allow the perpetrator to attack without reprisal. Additionally, the relative vulnerability of seabed infrastructure makes it an attractive target for criminal or terrorist attack.  And, the South West Pacific is larger and less well monitored than either the North Pacific or Baltic incentivising this type of criminal activity. 
  • Criminal cyber-attacks targeting infra-structure and defence networks. Whether criminal, terrorist or initiated by states, the small nations of the Pacific lack the cyber security capability to defend or recover easily from cyber-attack.  


Deep-sea mining

The Pacific is on the cusp of an enormous ‘gold rush’ as nations and companies rush to exploit the region’s mineral wealth. The impacts of this trend are uncertain and although likely to be limited in 2024 but as this trend progresses may include:

  • Environmental degradation of fishing resources.
  • Social problems including corruption created by sudden increases of wealth in small communities. 
  • Political instability and undermining of institutional governance in order to extract profitable mineral concessions.

This is an evolving situation but deep-sea mining is very likely to become a major Pacific. The world’s demand for the metals that become batteries and digital components is insatiable. Further, small and relatively poor Pacific nations could be easy for large mining companies to influence.  The exploitation of African oil provides a lesson for the Pacific, complete with political corruption, massive environmental damage and little improvement in the lives of most local people.



Regardless of Sino-American competition, direct conflict remains unlikely in the Pacific in 2024. However, it is important that the nations of the Pacific do not take this situation for granted.  We face a range of developing threats and an evolving international order that means we need to ‘look ahead’ and be prepared, because deterrence based on a ‘rules-based order’ is the best way to maintain peace and prosperity.

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack


  1. Conflict is ka-ching remember so my question is “What the fuck’s really going on here?”
    ‘The Social Dilemma’. I promise you, it will blow the fuck out of your mind.
    ” This documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.”
    So who’s who again? We general public types are enabling this cock posturing wankery with our own ignorance. While we have no real idea what the fuck’s going on, others are making trillions of dollars from the sales of penis-things to aggrieved halfwits to buy Barbie Dolls and dildo’s.
    How do you feel about that? Serious question.

  2. In September 2022, the Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic was bombed by an un-identified saboteur.

    Ffs Ben, we all know who did it.

  3. In September 2022, the Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic was bombed by an un-identified saboteur.

    Ffs Ben, we all know who did it.

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