Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update – A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific

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South China Sea, a multi-national response to Chinese aggression

On 7 April, Australia, Japan and the United States started a ‘Maritime Cooperative Activity’ in the South China Sea.  ‘Maritime Cooperative Activity’ is military-diplomatic double-speak and means that the partner nations are conducting a demonstration of capability and resolve by deploying ships and planes into the area. The aim being to deter Chinese aggression by demonstrating that between them these nations have the naval capability to over-match China; and further that they have the resolve to do so in support of Philippines.

This activity provides an opportunity to practice inter-operability and to familiarise personnel with joint operations and with local conditions. 

The nations issued a joint statement that says “We (US, Australia and Japan) stand with all nations in safeguarding the international order – based on the rule of law – that is the foundation for a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region. Our four nations reaffirm the position regarding the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal Award as a final and legally binding decision on the parties to the dispute.”  And, US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, Australian Defence Minister, Richard Marles and Japanese Defence Minister Kihara Minora all made individual statements supporting the response.

Recently, China’s level of aggression has increased in the South China Sea as Philippines political stance has changed. Its current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has set a very different policy from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte with regards to this issue.  Duterte distanced Philippines from the US and tried to appease China, establishing a more independent foreign policy position.  This included not publicising confrontations in the South China Sea. President Marcos’ government is taking a different approach.  It publicises confrontations, spotlighting China’s aggressive tactics and seeking support for collective security from its partners and allies. 

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History tells us that this is probably the pragmatic course of action, a small nation taking an independent foreign policy position is easily bullied by a larger power and can be forced to accept bi-lateral policy impositions.  For instance, in this case it could mean China having a permanent base on the Second Thomas Shoal about 270km west of the Philippines and 1,100km south-east of China.  

By working with its allies to assert a policy position that is based on the ruling of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal, Philippines is reinforcing the international rules-based order that provides a framework for international maritime trade. A position that is in stark contrast to China’s claim based on the ‘9 Dash Line’ a Chinese interpretation of territory that is not internationally supported. 

Tension will continue to mount in the South China Sea as China tests the resolve of Philippine’s allies. However, current events lead me to assess that the US, Australia and Japan are willing to stand up to China and accept the possibility of direct confrontation. Always pragmatic, and knowing that it is not strong enough to face the US and its partners China will de-escalate for now. Probably waiting for the outcome of the next US Presidential election that may considerably change US foreign policy.

 

New Zealand, AUKUS and NATO 

Internationally, there is an expectation that AUKUS will expand. The Financial Times reported last week that the alliance is keen to expand to include other nations. Both Japan and South Korea have been mentioned in different media. 

Three weeks ago, this column assessed that New Zealand would soon be subject to a diplomatic push to commit to AUKUS.  This week New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters is travelling to Washington with a full schedule of meetings that coincide with important trilateral security meetings between the US, Philippines and Japan. 

Additionally, the Defence Minister, Judith Collins recently had a telephone discussion with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Kurt Campell US Deputy Secretary of State spoke to Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.  New Zealand plays an important role in the Pacific and its existing ‘5 Eyes’ intelligence relationship means that it is easier to integrate into Pillar 2 of the arrangement than other potential partners. This week, Admiral John C Aquillino, commander of US Pacific forces visited New Zealand.  It is highly likely that the US and Australia would welcome New Zealand participation in the partnership and that AUKUS was a key point of these discussions. 

New Zealand has been exploring its security relationships for some time, the previous government brought the nation into NATO’s International Tailored Partnership Programme. Concurrently, NATO released its 2022 Strategic Concept that announced it saw China as a threat and would expand its area of interest into the Pacific. 

Recently, Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters stated after the NATO Foreign Minister’s meeting in Brussels that “New Zealand is committed to working together with NATO partners to contribute to collective security, such as through our support for Ukraine’s self-defence.” A statement that reinforces New Zealand’s commitment to the alliance as NATO continues to expand its role in the Pacific.

Essentially, the world is evolving rapidly and security and stability are becoming key concerns for all nations. AUKUS is often pitched in main stream New Zealand media in a very negative way.  However, history demonstrates clearly that peace is secured by resolve and the capability to fight.  Military partnerships and alliances are the basis for nations to work together to strengthen their resolve and build their capability to fight, thereby deterring conflict. The US and Australia will be trying encourage New Zealand to join AUKUS and the nation’s government will currently be considering its options very carefully.  It is likely that New Zealand’s position will be clarified sooner, rather than later.  

Tonga’s response to Australian and New Zealand statements about China-Solomon Islands security deal 

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation released a Tongan Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing document that discusses the Kingdom’s position on Australia and New Zealand’s response to the China-Solomon Islands security deal.  In 2022, Australia and New Zealand both lobbied smaller Pacific nations to encourage Solomon Islands not to sign a defence agreement with China. Five weeks ago, this column discussed similar activity in French Polynesia.  The fact that Australia and New Zealand were active in this manner is not surprising.

However, it is important to carefully study Tonga’s response because it highlights a key concern in Pacific geo-politics, the difference between the positions of the larger nations like the US, Australia, New Zealand and the region’s smaller nations.  The US, Australia and New Zealand are the large powers of the South West Pacific and share strong ethnic ties and history.  Part of that history includes colonisation and sometimes brutal treatment of indigenous groups.  For instance, New Zealand’s suppression of the Mau movement in the 1930s or Australia’s support for resource extraction across Melanesia that included training and equipping Papua New Guinea’s military during the war in Bougainville, a war that caused many civilian casualties. 

Additionally, post-colonial era Australia and New Zealand have historically sided with European powers like the UK and US, potentially confirming the perception that the Pacific is still essentially run by foreign powers. Nations focussed on issues that are out of step with the concerns of Pacific nations. Climate change is an immediate, existential threat for many small nations in the Pacific.  A threat that Australia, the US and New Zealand are perceived to prioritise lower than security.  

Hence, many small Pacific nations are likely to have similar views to Tonga that “The views expressed by ANZ [Australia and New Zealand] on the situation in the Solomon Islands that only they (or the Pacific) can decide which countries Pacific states should align themselves with.” Or that “This clearly shows they remain far removed from Pacific realities and only echoes the condescending rhetoric that we, unfortunately, see too often from ANZ leadership.”  

The reactions of many Pacific nations to the announcement of the AUKUS deal provides another example of this disconnect.  The deal clearly seen by many as the ‘old colonial club’ doing what it wants without reference to the concerns of the Pacific’s smaller nations. A perception that puts US, Australian and New Zealand diplomacy on the back foot. 

Acknowledgement of the validity of smaller Pacific nations policy positions and sensitivity to the Pacific’s colonial history is vital for successful engagement and relationship building in the Pacific. 

 

Vietnam and India strengthen defence relationships

India is another actor in the Pacific region and this week we are reviewing some recent interactions it has had with Vietnam.  Both countries are concerned about China, its increasing aggression in the South China Sea threatens maritime trade and both countries share a border with China.  

In 2016 the nations signed a bilateral security agreement and since 2023 this arrangement has seen increased activity. The fourth VINBAX exercise was conducted in 2023 with India deploying ground troops to Vietnam.  Indian ships are also visiting Vietnam more frequently, an important demonstration of partnership and goodwill. In 2023, Indian Navy destroyer INS Delhi and frigate INS Satpura visited the Vietnamese port of Da Nang.  India also gifted Vietnam a corvette. 

India’s role in the Pacific is developing and it is likely that we will see more of this nation’s military deploying east.  It creates an interesting dynamic in the region because India is a near-peer competitor with China and provides smaller states in the region with another potential security partner, as NATO, the US and China compete for influence in the region. 

Melanesian update 

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

Solomon Islands election

The Solomon Islands election is fast approaching. The election is on 17 August and is especially important because Solomon Islands politics is currently defined by the nation’s security relationships. Sogavare’s government moving closer to China and signing a secret defence agreement between the two nations. Actions that have caused both the US and Australia considerable concern. Solomon Islands relationship with China is an election issue and the election will provide an opportunity to gauge the nation’s support for a closer relationship. 

Fiji drug crime concerns

Fiji is becoming a transit point for drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl moving from the Americas into lucrative markets in New Zealand and Australia. In January, a shipment of methamphetamine weighing three tonnes was intercepted in Fiji and this year there have been regular reports of large seizures. 

At the recent opening of a Pacific Boarding Training and Search Training Facility in Fiji. The nation’s minister for Home Affairs and Immigration, Pio Tikoduadua highlighted his government’s concerns about drug crime in the nation and the wider Pacific.  The Minister also spoke in Parliament this week outlining plans to establish a new drug law enforcement agency. 



 

 

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

15 COMMENTS

  1. “Always pragmatic, and knowing that it is not strong enough to face the US and its partners China will de-escalate for now” Ben Morgan

    Good to see that Ben has put in the qualifier “for now”.

    War between the imperialist powers for control of the Pacific is coming, if not “now”, then soon, both sides are engaged in full scale preparation and mobilisation for this war.

    “Pragmatism” has nothing to do with it. If it did, China would not be confronting the Western powers and their allies in the Pacific in the first place.
    Imperialism is first and foremost an economic system. Expansion into new territories and markets already controlled by other powers, is not a choice but an imperative.

    Before WWII Japanese military leaders knew they were no match for the US. But that didn’t stop them. General Tojo Japan’s wartime Prime Minister who had toured the US in 1922 admitted that US industrial capacity a key component of modern industrial warfare vastly outmatched Japan’s.

    We all know climate change is damaging the planet, but the growth imperative of modern capitalist economy can’t stop doing it. The same with war.

    Capitalist economic expansion is an imperative, not a choice, even at the cost of destroying the world.

    • “For now”. Listened to Mearsheimer and Davis today. Both agree that the Biden neocon regime are desperate to “freeze” the conflict in both Israel and Ukraine. That is a recognition that the Russians are hammering NATO and won’t be stopped, and that arming Israel leaves the US exposed in case of conflict with China.

      The important thing both gents agreed is that the disastrous neocon policy isn’t finished, they merely seek time to rearm and start again. There will be until these psychos are expunged no lasting peace.

      • Putin fan boy, Nick J tells us about his wet dream of another inter-imperialist war to end all wars.

        “There will be until these psychos are expunged no lasting peace.” Nick J

        • Hi Pat, are you a Biden fan boy? Seems to me you align well with him on Ukraine. That would also make you a Banderista.

          • In answer to your question. No I am not a fan of President genocide Joe Biden. Neither am I a fan of the other of the two party system that takes turns as the executor of the American empire state.
            But more than that, I am opposed to all imperialist states. Can you say the same?

            • I can actually Pat, Russia is not the Soviet Union and definitely has no imperialist ambitions. . Your definition of imperialism includes anybody who is capitalist which is pretty much everybody. You as a Marxist should to listen to Michael Hudson (a man whose parents knew Trotsky). I’d posit he has a grip on Marxist thinking you’d do well to consider.

  2. The World is becoming Multipolar & America can’t handle that, it can’t stomach any Rivals to it’s Hegemony, the US Empire refuses to entertain challenges to its Unipolar power, it sees every other Nation as either a Vassal or Enemies but its obvious that America is well past its prime & is on the way out, hence the insane way it’s running around the World trying to destroy its great power rivals Russia & China? NATO, the North Atlantic Terrorist Organisation is a abomination, ask the Serbians & Libyans whom NATO destroyed, it has no business being in the Pacific, in fact NATO has no reason to exist at all, once the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991? But America decided to expand NATO to keep Europe under control, the US even created the EU to centralise power over all these formerly independent European Nations with their Sovereignty & Monetary policies decided by the EU! Then in 2014, America decided to try & knock Russia off the Geopolitical Chessboard as a appetiser before moving onto it’s main Target which is China. So they tried everything to overthrow Russia, a 2014 Coup d’état to overthrow Ukraine & putting in a Client puppet Regime, unprecedented Sanctions, then arming Ukraine to the Teeth & when that failed, they used Rules based Terrorism using ISIS -K, CIA assets in the CROCUS Terror attack. Unfortunately for the US Neocons, the Terrorists were caught & are now singing like canaries to the Russians implicating the Ukrainians & Americans in the attack! The US is bogged down in Ukraine, losing badly & also being humiliated in the Middle East by Yemen’s Houthis, America’s Neocon Travelling warmonger Circus has been forced to postpone its next War against China, a War predicated on trying to contain China’s rise to replace the US as the next great Economic Superpower! What a waste of money & resources, look at how China has managed to grow & prosper because they don’t waste their money & resources on War whilst America wastes trillions of dollars on pointless, unwinnable Wars while its Nation & people rots into despair & disrepair & decrepitude, it’s pathetic! No thanks NATO, fuck off!

    • “America is well past its prime & is on the way out, hence the insane way it’s running around the World trying to destroy its great power rivals Russia & China?” Antforce62

      Pick your poison, Eh Antforce?

  3. Russia has learnt a lot about countering western weapons in the last couple of years, I’m sure that information would be of interest to China as well since Taiwan has been supplied with a lot of the same or similar weapons that Ukraine has.

  4. “(US, Australia and Japan) stand with all nations in safeguarding the international order – based on the rule of law” Ben Morgan

    Ben Morgan needs to hang his head in shame at repeating such blatant bullshit here. These three nations, particularly the US – far from safeguarding international order and the rule of law, these three and other Western allies of Israel, have completely disregarded the orders of the Word Court, the majority vote of the United Nations General Assembly, ignored the Security Council order for a ceasefire. All of these legal rulings and orders from the UN and the World Court are non-binding on themselves and their ally Israel. If international legal orders of the World Court and the Security Council are nonbinding, they are nonbinding on everyone.

    In response to the Russian Federation destruction of Kiev’s electrical infrastructure the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky made this statement:

    “if Russian air strikes were allowed to continue without a strong response this will amount to a global license for Terror”

    If the above is true for Kiev it is also true for Gaza.

    The West’s total disregard for international law in Gaza, is what is giving China and Russia and their allies a global licence for terror.

  5. At its core imperialism is an economic system.

    The current war machine isn’t your grandfather’s MIC, not by a country mile.
    The military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about more than 60 years ago is still alive and well. In fact, it’s consuming many more tax dollars and feeding far larger weapons producers than when Ike raised the alarm about the “unwarranted influence” it wielded in his 1961 farewell address to the nation.
    The statistics are stunning. This year’s proposed budget for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons work at the Department of Energy is $886 billion —more than twice as much, adjusted for inflation, as at the time of Eisenhower’s speech….

    https://www.thenation.com/article/world/military-industrial-complex-defense/

    Befitting its new power and its global out sourcing, the military industrial complex gets a new name.

    Meet the (military) Entrepreneurial Industrial Sector.

    “AUKUS is not just a partnership between three governments, it’s also a partnership between three entrepreneurial industrial sectors”
    Scott Morrison ex-Aussie PM

    Tova O’Brien interviews ex-Prime Minister of Australia about AUKUS

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/politics/350242891/tova-podcast-former-australian-pm-thinks-its-time-look-nzs-nuclear-free-policy

    Tova O’Brien – “….our Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has made no secret of his desire to be involved in the non-nuclear part of the agreement, pillar two.”

    Christopher Luxon’s ‘desire’ to be involved with the non- nuclear part of AUKUS, is like expressing a desire to be involved in the non-sexual part of the sex industry.

  6. New Zealand is being asked to provide a pillar to prop up the war preparations of Australia and the US.
    In my opinion it’s best we stick to our independent foreign policy and have absolutely nothing to do with it.
    When the imperialist powers finally decide to engage in another full scale global mass slaughter, for division of the world
    Let’s hope they don’t wreck too much of the planet.

  7. You have to wonder, – considering New Zealand’s strategic remoteness down here at the bottom of the world, and the relatively meagre amounts of cannon fodder and war materials we would bring to the table, why the US and Aussies are so desperate to get us into their “excusive club” (as Scott Morrison called it).
    My thought is that they need New Zealand’s involvement as a sort of moral blessing. a comforting fluffy blanket of endorsement. The mere fact of New Zealand standing outside their pact. is that without that fluffy blanket of New Zealand’s moral support Australia and the US risk standing exposed as naked imperialists in this part of the world.

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