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

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Chinese fighter plane fires decoy flares near an Australian helicopter 

Last week, Australia reported that the previous weekend (4-5 May) an Australian helicopter operating in the Yellow Sea was dangerously harassed by a Chinese fighter plane. Australia claims that the fighter plane flew low over the helicopter (approximately 60 metres) and fired flares 300 metres in front of the helicopter.  

This is a very dangerous action.  Fighter planes often carry banks of flares that are fired to decoy heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles away from the plane. Firing flares near another aircraft is dangerous because they can distract the pilot or damage an aircraft if they hit it. Further, there is the risk that a flare is sucked into the target aircraft’s engine intakes causing a crash. And to put into perspective just how dangerous this manoeuvre was for the Australian helicopter, a helicopter moving at 100 knots (approximately 180kmph) covers 300 metres in about six seconds, leaving the pilot very little time to react.  

This incident is the latest in a series of dangerous harassments by Chinese naval and air units. In 2022, Chinese fighters dropped flares over an Australian P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft operating in the South China Sea. In October 2023, a similar manoeuvre was performed by a Chinese fighter against a Canadian naval helicopter operating in the South China Sea. More recently, a Chinese warship injured Australian naval divers who were underwater working to un-foul their vessel’s propeller by ‘pinging’ its sonar in November 2023. 

The Australian helicopter was operating off the destroyer HMAS Hobart in the Yellow Sea, enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea.  The Yellow Sea is obviously an area of security interest to China; however, the UN blockade operates in international waters. China does not dispute that the flares were fired but has issued a statement alleging that the Australian helicopter was operating illegally, stating that “Under the guise of implementing United Nations Security Council resolutions, Australian warships and aircraft deliberately approached China’s airspace to cause trouble and provocation, endangering China’s maritime and air security.” 

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Acts of harassment like this are reminiscent of the Cold War, during which several service people were killed in similar ‘grey zone’ altercations. It is also a demonstration of the level of tension that exists between China and nations that it sees as infringing on its claim to control areas like the South China and Yellow Seas.  Aggressive measures like these are very dangerous because sudden and unplanned escalations can easily happen. 

Further, these actions impact on international law because the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is clear that any nations vessel or aircraft has the right to operate freely in international waters. A feature of current Chinese foreign policy appears to be unilaterally enforcing territorial claims in areas regarded as international waters. The ‘9-Dash Line’ in the South China Sea is an example. This activity could impact maritime trade by challenging internationally recognised norms, increasing the risk to shipping companies and their insurers of transit through these areas.

New Zealand signals an increase in defence budget

In pre-budget press releases on 10 May, New Zealand Finance Minister, Nicola Willis signalled that the nation’s defence spending will increase. A small increase next year followed by more significant increases in subsequent years.  

The 20 Feb 2024 Pacific Brief, discussed the difficult defence decisions facing New Zealand’s new government. Signalling that investment is required because the New Zealand Defence Force is in a relatively weak condition. Although highly motivated, well-trained and generally well-equipped New Zealand’s military is under strength and technologically behind both Australia’s and other potential partners.  Any increase in defence spending will help address these gaps.

Solomon Islands election results 

Solomon Islands has selected a new government that will be headed by Jeremiah Manele.  The new Prime Minister was Foreign Affairs Minister in the previous government in 2019 when Solomon Island’s switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China.  Manele has already said that he intends to retain the nation’s developing relationship with China, including retaining the two nation’s secret defence agreement. 

The election result is likely to lead to closer diplomatic relations with China, creating tension with Australia and the US. However, Manele is regarded by many commentators as being more diplomatic and less-aggressive than his predecessor Manasseh Sogavare.  It will be interesting to see how the new Solomon Islands government’s foreign policy develops and the impact on the wider Pacific.  

New Zealand debates AUKUS 

A significant security policy debate in the South-West Pacific heated up last week.  On 1 May, New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters spoke about the alliance re-stating his government’s commitment to investigating the benefits of joining the agreement. The remainder of the week included plenty of debate about AUKUS.  This is my assessment of the key points in the AUKUS debate.

Why is New Zealand’s decision important? 

New Zealand is a leader in the South-West Pacific, a small but relatively rich nation with a long history of commitment to international collective security including supporting the UN and regional forums. This history means that New Zealand’s position will be watched closely by other nations, large and small. 

If New Zealand commits to AUKUS it will be seen as an acknowledgement that a small nation, with relatively independent foreign policy, is concerned about China’s activities in the Pacific.  If it does not commit, the decision could be interpreted to mean that New Zealand does not agree with its traditional security partners concerns about China.  And, either way the decision will be used in wider Sino-American diplomatic competition.  

What is AUKUS?

Unfortunately, the agreement’s objectives and long-term plans are opaque making informed public debate difficult. At this stage, AUKUS appears to be an agreement to share technology and leverage the participants research and defence industry investments to increase defence capabilities. A US Department of Defence summary says “It will promote deeper information sharing and technology sharing; and foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains.” 

AUKUS does not involve a commitment to fight together, and seems to be more akin to the existing range of partnership agreements that countries like Australia, the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand already belong too, including:

  • The ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing partnership.
  •  AUSCANNZUKUS or the Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US Command, Control, Communications and Computers partnership for sharing naval technology.
  • TTCP or ‘The Technical Cooperation Programme’ through which the same nations support defence science cooperation.

In New Zealand, AUKUS is sometimes described as a ‘war-fighting alliance.’  It is not, although the technology being developed is clearly focussed on future inter-operability between partners and on threats that China, Russia and North Korea present.  It should be regarded as a technology partnership to strengthen existing alliances. 

Does joining AUKUS commit New Zealand to fight in a future Sino-American conflict?

Since AUKUS is a partnership rather than an alliance it does not include a commitment to fight together in future conflicts.  Additionally, the current members (and potential members) are already linked by alliances. 

New Zealand’s only current commitment to potential conflict is the nation’s existing security alliance with Australia.  New Zealand has only one military alliance, with Australia. So, if Australia enters conflict with China, New Zealand is already committed to support its neighbour regardless of its AUKUS membership.  

What about the Treaty of Rarotonga and nuclear-proliferation? 

Another criticism of AUKUS is that it does not meet the spirit of the Treaty of Rarotonga and encourages nuclear-proliferation in the Pacific. The Treaty of Rarotonga, or the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty states the region’s opposition to nuclear weapons being used, stationed or tested in the South Pacific.  However, the treaty does not prevent the use or deployment of nuclear-powered vessels.  An argument that AUKUS compromises this treaty is based on interpreting the intent of the treaty, rather than the actual wording making this argument essentially subjective. History shows that policy decisions based on objective analysis are generally better.  

What is the risk of joining AUKUS?

The key risk is China’s reaction. China has already made diplomatic statements encouraging New Zealand to avoid participation, so if New Zealand joins it is likely to suffer sanctions.  Historically, China uses indirect economic sanctions. For instance, in 2020, it imposed crippling tariffs on Australian wine, after Australia requested an investigation of China’s COVID-19 response.  New Zealand could expect similar punishment and since China is the nation’s largest trading partner it may have a significant economic impact. 

What are the advantages to New Zealand of joining AUKUS?

Currently, there is intense Sino-American competition in the Pacific. China is a growing power seeking to re-structure the existing international rules-based order for its own advantage. The US, that currently dominates the international rules-based order naturally opposes China’s activities.

Although war is highly unlikely because both sides have too much to lose, security is going to be a defining feature of Pacific politics in the foreseeable future. China is already using hybrid war tactics in the South China Sea that can only be countered by demonstrating the resolve and capability to protect the rights of smaller nations.  

AUKUS is a new strand in a web of partnerships and alliances designed to deter China (or Russia or North Korea) moving from less kinetic hybrid war tactics to military action to achieve foreign policy goals.  For instance, China is unlikely to invade Taiwan or blockade the South China Sea if it knows that there is a strong alliance of nations that will oppose such armed interventions.  Any conflict in the Pacific hurts maritime trade and remote trading nations like New Zealand will be very heavily impacted. And, if AUKUS helps keep the peace so that trade flows uninterrupted, New Zealand benefits. 

Additionally, membership of Pillar 2 could help New Zealand’s Defence Force retain inter-operability with our ally Australia. Pillar 2 work streams include improving cyber security protection, digital communications and defences against emerging technology like hyper-sonic missiles.  By working with Australia and other partners the New Zealand Defence Force is more likely to retain the ability to operate easily and effectively with its security partners, not only during conflict but also supporting disaster relief and stable governance across the region. 

Melanesian update 

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

Fijian coup leader sent to prison

Frank Bainimarama, who led the 2006 military coup in Fiji has been sentenced to a year in prison for perverting the course of justice. After the coup, Bainimarama was a long serving Prime Minister, including being elected to the position. The court found that during his tenure as Prime Minister he ordered the Commissioner of Police not to investigate allegations of corruption at the University of the Pacific’s Fiji campus.  Possibly, this sentence will contribute to greater political stability in Fiji by demonstrating the reach and independence of the courts.  However, Bainimarama also has supporters in Fiji political elite so we will keep monitoring how this situation develops.

Chinese ships visiting Timor Leste

Chinese Navy ships PALNS Qijiguang and Jinggangshan are visiting Cambodia and Timor Leste until mid-June.  Although, ship visits are not unusual and are a regular feature of military diplomatic conventions the visit is worth noting because of Australia’s keen interest in Timor Leste.  In 2023, Timor Leste’s President, Josē Ramos Horta claimed to have turned down offers of Chinese security and police support because of concerns about Australian security sensitivities.  Timor Leste is another Melanesian point of tension between China and Australia to keep watching closely. 




 

 

 

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

5 COMMENTS

  1. Yes it was a dangerous provocation, made by the AUSTRALIANS, not by the Chinese? The Australians weren’t in International Waters, they were in Chinese Territorial waters & China had every right to kick them out? The last Time I looked, this Australian Helicopter & Warship were thousands of miles from Australian Shores, what the fuck was it doing in Chinese waters? The Days when Western lackeys of the US Empire, like the British & Australians can just think they can arrogantly invade other Nations or sail around the World in other Nations Sovereign waters or go wherever they wish without hinderance ARE OVER! Aussie go Home & stop kissing America’s ass, China is a Superpower, a Nuclear one at that, who does Australia think it is, it’s just a pissy, Militarily weak little Country at the bottom of the World, like NZ is, stop antagonising the Chinese for no good reason, know your place, you don’t matter!

    • Who said they were in Chinese waters? Can you back that claim up in any way? Everything I’ve read says it was international waters.

  2. Geez can someone please explain where about is the yellow sea? And its says the Aus govt alleged which means IMO not to be taken seriously. Hate to break it to you Ben but this feels like the same narrative pushed about the Ukraine fiasco? China serve our interest more than the US why would we want to fuck that up is beyond my pay grade.

  3. Parachute 500,000 tonnes of MDMA tabs into Beijing in step with another 500,000 tonnes of tabs into Washington DC followed by 500,000 blow-up sex-dolls dropped somewhere in the middle in conjunction with 500,000 litres of skin cream for the friction burns and make sure you get pictures. Problem solved. Enduring peace reigns.
    I always think that those Real Men He-types flying super sonic killing machines were once wee kids bumbling about in a sand pit. What the fuck happened to them on the way?

  4. While I respect Ben’s opinions his infatuation with the USA is a bit disappointing. It should be self evident that trusting worldly powers is a dead end street as sooner or later our interests will collide and the weakest will suffer. There is only 1 power we can trust and a good example would be Korea, ask yourself what is the difference that allows such a vast difference between the North and South. I put it to you that the South allowed missionaries and Christianity while the North refused it with the inevitable result that we see today. The same example played out once the dark ages ended and there was a dramatic increase in our knowledge and living standards. I do accept that there are good and bad Christians with the easiest way to tell the difference being that anyone who uses force to control others conscience is wrong.

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