Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update

A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific


Australia and Indonesia negotiating defence agreement

Australia and Indonesia are rapidly negotiating a defence arrangement, with the first drafts of a treaty level agreement planned to be ready for review soon, and signed within the next two to three months. The plan was announced very soon after meetings between Australian Defence Minister, Richard Marles and Indonesian Defence Minister, Prabowo Subianto on 23 February. Marles told reporters that “We are looking at the deepest, most significant defence agreement between our two nations in our respective histories. First time this will have occurred at a treaty level.” 

A treaty with Indonesia is a coup for Australia. The Indonesian archipelago covers much of the Australian north and by developing a stronger relationship both nations increase their security.  Indonesia is an enormous nation both geographically and in terms of population but is relatively poor and its military, although large is far less effective than Australia’s so will benefit from working closely with Australia.  From an Australian perspective, a key benefit of this relationship is securing military access to the South China Sea and Melanesia.  The most direct routes from Australia to the South China Sea, the Philippines or other potential South East Asian or Melanesian deployments transit Indonesian waters.  

A military relationship with Indonesia provides the building blocks for forward deployment of Australian military assets if required in the future. It could also provide access to things like Indonesian electronic, underwater and air surveillance networks extending Australia’s intelligence capabilities further north and into possible operational areas.  

Indonesia’s key win from the arrangement is Australia’s commitment not to support Indonesia’s various indigenous independence movements.  Indonesia has several indigenous groups wanting to separate from the state and form new nations, the most relevant to this discussion being the West Papuans.  

This agreement also highlights the importance of personal relationships in the defence community.  Prabowo Subianto, the current Defence Minister and front-runner in the Indonesian Presidential election is a graduate of Royal Military College, Australia.  So has a long and obviously positive relationship with Australia.  

Special Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit hosted in Australia this week

ASEAN is not a military alliance, instead it was founded in 1967 to focus on economic and cultural development in South East Asia. Its membership includes Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Brunei, Myanmar and since 2024 Timor Leste.  

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This week Australia hosts the leaders of ASEAN members for a special summit that celebrates 50 years since Australia became ASEAN’s first ‘Dialogue Partner.’  The US and China are also ‘Dialogue Partners.’ The meeting is not only a chance to celebrate the relationship’s 50th birthday but is also an opportunity for Australia to strengthen military and economic ties with the Association’s members.

On Monday, Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong announced that Australia has budgeted $186.7 million of aid that is targeted at improving maritime security in the region.   This meeting provides an opportunity for ASEAN and its partners to meet, network and negotiate strategies for dealing with regional issues.  From Australia’s perspective is useful because ASEAN nations have a wide range of relationships with China for instance Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines are not on good terms with China.  While Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar enjoy better relationships.  This tension provides Australia with a range of useful insights into the region and the relationships that underpin security discussions. 

New Zealand continues to support Ukraine

New Zealand recently announced that it would continue to support Ukraine until at least 2025, providing approximately $NZ 25 million of military support.  New Zealand soldiers have now trained 2700 Ukrainian soldiers, six training teams rotating to the UK and working within the British Army’s programme providing training for Ukrainian soldiers. Some New Zealand personnel also serve in NATO logistics and intelligence roles supporting Ukraine. New Zealand also commits a small amount financially, but its biggest contribution by far is its personnel.  

New Zealand service people have built a strong international reputation for their competence and humanity, essential features of a good trainer.  By training Ukrainian soldiers, New Zealand is making a very tangible commitment to supporting Ukraine. 

This work, Operation Tieke, is another example of New Zealand’s role as a small nation committed to supporting the international rules-based order.  By maintaining a high-level of military capability New Zealand’s defence force can make a useful commitment to supporting another nation defend itself against aggression. A commitment that demonstrates how the international community (even tiny nations like New Zealand) can work together and guarantee security, collectively. 

China and Russia continue to build their relationship in the Pacific

After a recent visit to Moscow, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Sun Weidong reflected on his nation’s strong relationship with Russia and called for both nations to work together more to improve security and encourage development in the region. Specifically, he discussed the value of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the role it could play in the Pacific region. 

The SCO is an economic development and security organisation founded by Russia and China. Its membership includes a range of central Asian ex-Soviet republics, Iran and Pakistan.  It is an example of an organisation established to compete with US-led, supported or funded international institutions.

The US its allies and many other nations are already nervous about China and Russia’s intentions and this week’s statements will do little to quell these concerns. 

Kiribati, an island at the centre of Sino-American competition

Kiribati, a small island nation is currently in the spotlight of Sino-American competition. The island is about 2,000 km south of Hawaii, or in military terms is a potential intelligence gathering site, for listening to signals traffic from US bases in Hawaii or as a possible launch site for long-range precision-guided missiles. Hence, its importance to both the US and China regardless of its small size and population. In recent weeks, the tiny nation has featured in the news with stories that demonstrate how Sino-American competition is playing out in the Pacific.

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats 

In previous Pacific Briefs, we have discussed the US policy of supporting small Pacific nations by providing US Coast Guard patrols to help secure their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). While patrolling Kiribati’s EEZ between 11-16 February US Coast Guard and Kiribati police stopped and boarded two Chinese fishing vessels.  

Chinese police in Kiribati, US and Australia voice concerns.

Recently, China has worked proactively to engage in security agreements with Pacific nations and to put police officers ‘on the ground’ in support of local police forces. A policy that the US and its allies object to, creating tension in the Pacific. 

On 28 February, Reuters reported that Chinese police were working on Kirbati, stating that Eeri Aritiera, Kiribati’s Acting Police Commissioner had told reporters “uniformed Chinese officers were working with police in community policing and a crime database program.” The South China Mail provided more detail about the support being provided, quoting an email from the Acting Commissioner stating “The Chinese police delegation team work with the Kiribati Police Service – to assist on community policing programme and martial arts (tai chi) kung fu, and IT department assisting our crime database programme.”

The concern is that police forces in all countries have considerable access to both government and private information. Looking at the Kiribati example, it is possible that IT specialists helping build a criminal database could be building in ‘backdoors’ that will provide long-term access to a range of sensitive information.  Likewise, community engagement programmes provide an opportunity to identify, meet, and build networks with key community leaders.  People that could be politically influential or may become intelligence sources in the future. 

Although, current activity may be demonstrably benign it is naïve to think that the valuable intelligence gathered by supporting a small nation’s police force will not be used for other purposes. Therefore, the presence of Chinese police on Kiribati excited a quick response from both Australia and the US.  Australian Pacific Minister, Pat Conroy stating that there is ‘no role’ for Chinese police in the Pacific and that Australia can support other nations to train their police forces. Likewise, The US cautioned Pacific nations about getting police assistance from China. 


Melanesian update 

A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia. 

Australian and New Zealand diplomats met French Polynesian officials about the Solomon Islands-China defence agreement in 2022

On 29 February, Al Jazeera, reported that New Zealand diplomats lobbied their counterparts in French Polynesia about the Solomon Island’s security agreement with China. The article included extracts from diplomatic cables released under the Official Information Act. 

The story discussed meetings that took place in March 2022, after Solomon Islands announced its new defence agreement with China.  The detail of the conversations was not reported but the general diplomatic discussion, including working with Australian officials is recorded.  An important point is that New Zealand officials suggested that any statement should be led by the Pacific Islands Forum.  

This article provides an interesting insight into the ‘back room’ discussion, and there is nothing surprising about the discussion or about New Zealand and Australia lobbying other Pacific nations to make statements.  Both New Zealand and Australia’s Prime Ministers publicly expressed concern about the situation.  

The information released is interesting because it indicates New Zealand’s commitment to supporting collective security, through the Pacific Islands Forum. 

Papua New Guinea may support the Solomon Islands election next month

In April, Solomon Islands will be holding its next election. The election was delayed by Manasseh Sogavare’s government because it felt that running an election at the same time as the Pacific Island Games in 2023 would be too expensive and difficult. A decision that has received some criticism. 

On 5 March, Papua New Guinea’s Commissioner of Police, David Manning confirmed that his nation was discussing a request to provide support during the election from Solomon Islands.  

This is an important issue because Solomon Islands elections have a history of violence often based on tensions between people from the island of Malita and those from Guadalcanal.  Papua New Guinea media reports that the ‘Democracy 4 Malita’ movement may be planning violent election protests. Violence during elections has traditionally targeted the ex-patriot Chinese community in the nation’s capital, Honiara.  If allowed to eventuate, a riot in Honiara’s China town is very problematic; Could it trigger a Chinese intervention within the terms of the Sino-Solomon Islands defence agreement?  Or would Australia intervene?  What happens if Australian and Chinese soldiers or police both deploy to Solomon Islands because there have been riots?  Unfortunately, we do not know and it is good to see that Papua New Guinea’s policer are working with Solomon Islands to try and mitigate this risk, so that we do not have to answer these questions. 

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



  1. Laughable. NATO Ben keeps pretending that the US is anything except what it is, the most evil empire the world has ever seen.

    • Same motivation as always. The haters of Muslims like Brenton Tarrant and Baruch Goldstein and Juliet Moses are the same people who hate China for its support for the human rights of Palestinians.


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