Taiwan election result intensifies Chinese diplomatic offensive in the Pacific
China’s diplomatic efforts in the Pacific increased suddenly after Taiwan’s recent election of Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate. Lai is unpopular in China and before the election China warned Taiwanese voters that electing him would increase tension between the two nations.
Immediately, after the election China’s diplomats raced into action. Less than 48 hours later, Nauru announced it no longer recognised Taiwan and would focus on diplomatic relations with China. After Australia closed its detention centre on the island, the nation lost about $ 125 million of revenue that China is reported to be replacing with aid. Nauru joins a list of ten small Pacific nations that have cut ties with Taiwan since 2016. Currently, Tuvalu, Palau and Marshall Islands are the only Pacific nations that have diplomatic relationships with Taiwan.
Now all eyes are on Tuvalu, this small nation’s elections are on Friday 26 January 2023 and debate centres on diplomatic relationships. Specifically, the Australia -Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty that provides a direct immigration pathway for Tuvaluan people to Australia but that also provide an Australian government veto over Tuvalu’s foreign security relationships. Essentially, the treaty blocks China developing a security relationship with Tuvalu by offering sanctuary in Australia to Tuvaluans effected by climate change.
Opposition leader, Enele Sopoaga has already stated that if he is elected, he will get rid of the treaty. His party believes the treaty signs away Tuvalu’s independence and are concerned that it was not publicly debated.
This political debate is linked to Tuvalu’s wider relationships with China and Taiwan. Since the nation’s last election in 2019, Chinese diplomats have been very active in Tuvalu and the nation’s ambassador in Taiwan has already warned that after the election; Tuvalu’s recognition of Taiwan may stop.
The small nations of the Pacific are important to larger powers for two reasons. The first reason is legitimacy within international forums, like the United Nations. In these groups all nations have a voice and a vote. International forums are used to mediate disputes like freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or whether Taiwan is an independent nation. Most nation’s will seek an international mandate before using force to enforce a claim because it legitimises their actions. The current democratic ‘rules-based order’ values every nation’s vote so larger nations seek relationships and support from smaller nations.
The second reason is that in any future conflict the tiny atolls and islands of the Pacific nations will be important bases. Securing support of local politicians makes development of military facilities easier. Hence, the competition for the goodwill of these small nations that is such a feature of current Pacific competition.
The Pacific drug trade, a significant security issue
Last week, Fijian police made two large drug seizures in Nadi, one of approximately three tonnes and the second approximately 1.1 tonne of methamphetamine. The seizures are part of a wider trend in the Pacific. This region was always a transit point for drug trafficking between the Indian Ocean, Asia and the Americas, but in recent years the trade has increased. A 2022 Lowry Institute article, ‘Drug trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The impact of transnational crime’ authored by Jose Sousa-Santos states “It (the Pacific) is valuable to Asian organised crime syndicates and Mexican and South American cartels as a transit route and occasional production site, targeting the lucrative markets in Australia and New Zealand where the street value of methamphetamine and cocaine is amongst the highest in the world.”
The Pacific provides many remote and poorly policed areas in which drugs can be manufactured. In an ‘East Asia Forum’ article ‘Tackling drug trafficking in the Pacific’ Anthea McCarthy-Jones writes “Australian and New Zealand outlaw motorcycle groups have established a presence in countries such as the Cook Islands and Fiji. This has been attributed to an increase in criminal activity in the area. Collusion between resident groups and transnational organised crime groups from Asia and Latin America facilitate on-site drug production capabilities across the Pacific Islands.”
Using Pacific islands for production is a trend identified in 2004, after a large methamphetamine lab was shut down in Fiji. Production labs have since been identified across the Pacific in Fiji, Tonga, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Marianas and Papua New Guinea. It is believed that organised crime groups from Australia and New Zealand use their local knowledge and contacts to reach into the Pacific and facilitate the trade into their lucrative home markets. This trend brings local criminal networks into direct contact with larger South American and Asian drug cartels.
Several trends contribute to these changes:
- The development of lucrative methamphetamine markets in Australia and New Zealand. Methamphetamine is produced in large quantities in America and in Asia and the market in these regions is saturated. In New Zealand and Australia, the drug still attracts a high price making these countries a profitable market for drug cartels.
- Repatriation of criminals from New Zealand, Australia and the US to the Pacific. New Zealand, Australia and the US have Pacific Island populations and repatriate people convicted of serious offences to their home countries. A policy that creates ‘readymade’ criminal networks able to facilitate the movement and production of drugs in the Pacific.
The increasing Pacific drug trade is a key security concern for all Pacific nations both internally and from a international security perspective. The harm inflicted by organised crime on communities is well-known but international security risks exist too. The drug trade creates a shadow economy that can de-stabilise state institutions and undermine the rule of law, increasing the possibility of institutional corruption. Institutional corruption impacts countries economically, politically and makes government easier to influence. The Pacific drug trade is a major threat to Pacific security.
Here is a link to the Lowery Institute article –
Conflict in the Red Sea, impacts and lessons for the Pacific
The Houthi are a large insurgent group fighting for independence in Yemen. The Houthi are a strong, armed group that controls parts of Yemen, allowing them to attack the Red Sea’s shipping lanes. Specifically, the Bab Al Mandab Strait, a chokepoint for shipping using the Suez Canal, that about 10-12% of the world’s total merchant tonnage and about 30% of all container trade passes through.
The Red Sea conflict immediately impacts the Pacific economically because the cost of diverting containers around the Cape of Good Hope roughly doubles the cost of shipping. This means that Pacific exporters will become less competitive and that imports to the region will be more expensive.
This conflict also provides an insight into future wars. The Houthi can interfere with trade in the Red Sea because they have access to cheap but effective precision-guided missiles and drones. These weapons are proliferating and will change the face of any future war in the Pacific. China’s approach to any future war is a tactic called ‘area denial’ or using swarms of cheap precision-guided missiles to swamp the air defences of enemy warships. A tactic developed to counter American aircraft carriers and their supporting task groups.
The Houthi are using similar ‘area denial’ tactics in the Red Sea, their drones and precision-guided missiles denying the area to commercial shipping. This situation provides lessons for any future conflict involving ‘area denial’ using precision-guided missiles and drones.
- Drones mean dual purpose guns still have an anti-aircraft role. Modern warships face being swamped by enormous numbers of drones and missiles. Ships have very limited space to store large air defence missiles. It is reported that US Navy ships are using 5’’dual purpose guns to intercept slow flying drones at long-range. Saving their limited stock of anti-aircraft missiles and small but fast firing guns known as Close in Weapon Systems (CIWS) for use against precision-guided cruise missiles. Navy Lookout’s article ‘After action report – Royal Navy’s busiest air defence activity since 1982’ confirms that software support enabling HMS Diamond, the Royal Navy’s commitment to the operation, to use the same tactic was withdrawn as a cost saving measure some years ago. Use of 4.5/5” dual purpose guns (useless against modern attack aircraft or precision guided missiles) against drones may provide greater flexibility and preserves air-defence missile and CIWS ammunition.
- Ammunition resupply. In the military it is common expression that “amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics.” Providing warships fighting swarms of drones and precision-guided missiles with sufficient ammunition to keep fighting is a key consideration for future planning.
- Aircraft versus drones and precision-guided missiles – Fighter aircraft can engage drones and precision-guided missiles providing another layer of air defence against swarm attacks.
- Boots on the ground. Widespread aerial attacks by US and UK aircraft have had limited impact on Houthi ability to attack shipping. The unfortunate reality is that modern drones and missiles are easily dispersed and hard to target from the air. Defeating this type of threat is going to require infantry soldiers, able to search ground in detail and secure it against reoccupation. A key lesson for future Pacific conflicts.
A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia.
Papua New Guinea, political instability could be on the horizon
Papua New Guinea made significant international gains in 2023, signing defence agreements with Australia and the US. The nation also hosted diplomatic visits by Australia, India, France, Indonesia and Hungary providing opportunities to discuss issues ranging from security to climate change. Additionally, the economy is strong and grew 3% in 2023 with growth in 2024 predicted to be 5%.
However, Papua New Guinea faces a range of other issues. The nation desperately needs more revenue to pay down foreign debt and to strengthen government institutions. This means Prime Minister James Marape’s government plans to raise taxes. Additionally, the nation’s economic growth is not translating into more jobs and there was political concern about the security agreement with the US.
Prime Minister Marape’s party, PANGU holds 103 of 118 seats in parliament but he is not immune from internal political challenges and the period during which ‘No Confidence’ motions are not allowed is over.
Already, there has been a call for a ‘No Confidence’ motion in Prime Minister Marape after recent rioting. It will be interesting to see if there is a repeat of Vanuatu’s 2023 politicking in Papua New Guinea.
Riots in Port Moresby and Lae
More than 20 people died as Papua New Guinea was rocked by violence on 12 January, after criminal elements took advantage of a police strike. The Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary is poorly resourced and paid poorly. A recent payroll mistake meant that staff were not paid so stopped work.
The sudden escalation of violence in the nation’s two largest cities demonstrates the weakness of Papua New Guinean government institutions and demonstrates why Prime Minister Marape’s government needs more tax revenue.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack