Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update

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


NATO countries plan more exercises in the Pacific 

In mid-2024, German, Spanish and French aircraft will participate in a series of exercises in the Pacific. The European aircraft will participate is range of exercises including Exercise Pitch Black 2024 in Australia’s Northern Territory, and visiting Japan. However, the focus is the US sponsored RIMPAC 2024 exercise in June and July.  RIMPAC is a large, biennial multi-national exercise that aims to improve inter-operability between nations allied to the US. By training together, getting to know each other and testing ideas participating nations become more skilled at working together.  

Many Pacific nations are already well integrated into the exercise, for instance RIMPAC 2024’s Exercise Coordinator is an Australian, but the large contingent of European nations is a new feature. In our annual review of Pacific security issues (10 Jan 24 – The Pacific region in 2024 – An overview) we discussed the increasing trend for NATO nations to be planning for operations in the Pacific. Last year, we reported on the deployment of German paratroopers and aircraft to Australian exercises and about the increasing number of NATO countries that are sending warships to the Pacific supporting ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the Strait of Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, Commander of the German Airforce summed up the change in an interview with the Guardian in March last year when he said “Especially now looking to the war in Ukraine, you cannot divide Europe from Asia, and you cannot divide the scenario we have looking to Russia with the scenario here in the Indo-Pacific,” confirming that European powers see security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region as inseparable from security and stability in Europe 

Europe’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region means that in mid-2024, 20 German, four Spanish and six French fighter aircraft supported by tankers and transport aircraft will be practicing their operational skills in the Pacific. Building relationships with Pacific nations, learning how they operate and becoming accustomed to regional geographic and weather conditions. Developing a knowledge base that makes commitment of forces to the Pacific easier.  European military activity in the Pacific looks set to increase, especially if China continues to threaten freedom of navigation either around Japan and Taiwan or in the South China Sea. 

Chinese defence budget increases again

China’s 14th National Peoples Congress took place between 5-11 March 2024 and was noted for its brevity and lack of discussion.  China faces a range of economic issues, but Premier Li Qiang’s Work Report still included another 7.2% increase in defence spending.  The new budget is approximately 1.7 trillion yuan or roughly US$ 236 billion, and this is the third year in a row that China has increased its defence budget by around 7%.  

Additionally, it is hard to accurately quantify Chinese defence expenditure because military expenditure is sometimes recorded in other budgets. For instance, the space programme is run by the military but is not included in defence budget statements. Maintenance of bases is recorded in local provincial budgets. Many research programmes with defence applications are also not recorded as defence spending. Finally, China’s large para-military organisations like the Coastguard are also not recorded in defence budgets.  Factors that mean total Chinese defence spending is probably higher than reported. 

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It should also be noted that Li’s report discussed development of both the defence industry and China’s reserve forces.  Force sustainability is a key lesson from the Ukraine War, this war demonstrates that internationally tolerance for nuclear escalation is very low and that large conventional wars are more likely to be accepted by the international community. A feature of the Cold War was that credible threats of nuclear escalation served to deter, shorten or even stop conventional wars.  Ukraine proves that this model of nuclear deterrence is no longer applicable and that the gap between aggression and nuclear response is wider than in the past.  For instance; Would America threaten to escalate to using nuclear weapons to halt either an invasion of Taiwan or South Korea?  Probably not, which means that all nations need to be preparing to sustain long war efforts. The Chinese defence budget tells us that China has learnt this lesson from the Ukraine War and is investing in two key aspects of a sustainable military; a strong local defence industry and a strong reserve force that can be used to supplement regular forces.  

Brunei increases defence budget by 32% for 2024/25 Financial Year

Brunei is a small nation in the middle of the South China Sea, and this week, in a move that indicates the nation’s level of concern about security it increased its defence budget by approximately 32% to US$ 594 million.   Brunei’s 2021 Defence Whitepaper details a range of threats including terrorism, crime, cyber threats and climate threats. However, the most likely stimulus for Brunei’s recent change in budget is likely to be the increasing aggressiveness of Chinese ships policing the area of the South China Sea that China claims.  

Brunei plans to invest in surveillance and targeting assets like new longer range and more capable drones.  It is also investing in undersea surveillance, an important but little discussed aspect of naval planning.  Any area of ocean that is contested like the Baltic or the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap is full of static hydrophones and other sensors placed on the seabed to monitor submarine traffic.  

Brunei is a tiny nation so is probably taking a similar approach to that of another small nation caught between giants, Estonia.  Focussing on providing intelligence assets that can be integrated into the operations of larger partners, and local security for forces deploying to Brunei in times of crisis from partners like the UK or US.

Brunei’s huge increase in defence spending is another indicator of the mounting tensions around the South China Sea.  Additionally, it provides food for thought about how smaller nations respond to the security challenges facing the Pacific.  Small nations like Brunei are never going to be able to protect their sovereignty or trade routes alone, instead they must work with partners.  This is the essence of collective security and Brunei’s budget increase is a clear signal to potential partners that even though it is a small nation it is willing to contribute to regional stability and security. 


Melanesian update 

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

Political tensions increase in New Caledonia

New Caledonia is a French colony in the Pacific.  Its indigenous people the Kanaks have long wanted independence and there have been heavily contested referendums about the issue.  Most recently, in 2019 when the referendum was boycotted by Kanaks.  The main independence group, the Kanak Socialist and Liberation Front (FLKNS) telling its supporters to stay home and not participate. 

The outcome of the referendum has been contested ever since. Recently, the French government proposed constitutional changes that would ‘unfreeze’ the New Caledonian electoral roll.  A change that is opposed by pro-independence groups. 

Essentially, the people eligible to vote in a plebiscite referendum has been frozen since 2007.  In the late 1980’s Kanak independence escalated into violence, and in 1988 a political settlement called the Matigon Agreement laid out a ten-year plan to discuss independence.  In 1998, this discussion translated in to the Noumea Accord that’s principles are given effect by freezing the electoral roll in 2007.

Pro-independence groups are concerned that if the roll is unfrozen Kanak representation will drop and this situation led to a large riot, in the capital Noumea on 20 February 2024.  Political tensions in France’s largest Pacific colony are increasing and are liable to get worse.  It seems a safe bet that France has no intention of giving up its Pacific colonies, increased French diplomacy in the region recently indicating that France wants to retain an interest in the region. History tells us that this factor combined with the desire of Kanaks to be independent inevitably establishes a difficult and possibly a ‘no win’ situation.  Approximately 35 years ago New Caledonia suffered armed conflict and it would be very sad if this situation was repeated.  

 Papua new Guinea’s police re-organise to stop inter-tribal fighting in the highlands

Papua New Guinea’s Police Commissioner, David Manning announced changes in organisation and force structure on 8 March.  The Commissioner has established a new ‘special policing zone’ in Enga, Hela and Southern Highlands provinces and addressed leadership issues in local police commands.  

It is likely that these reforms are to remove corrupt police commanders and to develop and integrated command structure able to work with the special task force created last year to flood armed police into hotspots and stop the violence.  Further, there is likely to be considerable intelligence activity that needs to be coordinated and will require centralised administration.  This announcement may be a good first step towards re-establishing the rule of law in the highlands.  




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


  1. I’m not saying we should match the forces that influence our region because a populationof 5 million simply cant field an army of sufficientmen and material. I’m saying we should equalise it by doubling base load energy and develop technologically. In great power terms New Zealand isn’t even at zero. She had no export industry to speak of. Imports are the cost. We have to add value to imports/immigrants and send it back out to the world not just to balance but trade but so that instead of middle income earners buying 10 year old jap imports they can buy the 2024 Camry drive away. Yknow? Equal. In all areas of endeavour. Corprals might want the SR HiLux with a manual transmutation… equal.

  2. Turn our polluting, animal-cruel, milk treatment plants into E manufacturing factories then use the Zoom-Zoom Kill-Kill flying machines to crop dust all gun nuts globally. Then, you’ll hear ; ” Hey!? I ate a very dusty good Red Russian cabbage and suddenly I haf to say I love you Volodymyr !” Shouted back ” I ate a dusty late season turnip and now, suddenly, I love you too Vladimir ! I vant to haf your babies…! Can zis be done? ” And in reply ” Vi not! Lets giff it a try? ”
    World peace? Sorted.


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