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

0
177

Shangri La Dialogue

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Asia Security Summit, or the Shangri La Dialogue is an important international security meeting, hosted annually in Singapore. The meeting aims to provide an opportunity for security policy makers in the Asian region to meet, develop closer relationships and discuss key issues. It is a large event that attracts a wide range of important people, both elected representatives and officials. 

This year’s Shangri La Dialogue ran from 31 May to 2 June and is notable for several key discussions. The first, involved the US Secretary of State Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Defence Minister Dong Jun, who met on the sidelines. The first meeting between these officials since 2022 and an opportunity to re-establish communication and discuss mutual concerns.  A very important meeting considering current Sino-American tension in the Pacific.  US officials reported that Austin re-stated US concerns about freedom of navigation in the region.

This meeting took place after Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, Jr outlined his nation’s concerns about the international rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Philippines is involved in hybrid conflict with China over several islands and territorial claims in the South China Sea.  China claims almost the whole sea, and its large police and coast guard vessels often confront Philippines fishing boats and law enforcement vessels.  The situation is very tense with Philippines ships being rammed, forced off course by aggressive manoeuvres or subjected to powerful fire hoses being used against their crews. 

Marcos was careful not to name China, but was clearly raising his nations concerns about that country’s activity, stating “Attempts to apply domestic laws and regulation beyond one’s territory and jurisdiction violate international law, exacerbate tensions and undermine regional peace and security.” Marcos’s policy has been to openly confront China and highlight this activity, relying on the collective security provided by the international rules-based order to deter further escalation.  

- Sponsor Promotion -

The summit also had a surprise guest, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian president turned up unannounced and under heavy security. He spoke about the planned peace conference to be held in Switzerland.  A conference that he claimed China and Russia are trying to undermine. 

The Shangri La Dialogue is an important event on the diplomatic calendar and this year it again highlighted the Pacific’s evolving tensions.  Many nations are nervous about Chinese activity in the South China Sea and Taiwan.  South Korea, Japan, Australia, Philippines, Canada and even Brunei have all recently increased defence spending and are increasingly working together to build partnerships to deter Chinese aggression. 

Philippines and Ukraine Presidents meet 

Immediately after the Shangri La Dialogue, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy flew to Philippines and met the nation’s president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr in Manilla. This meeting is important because it highlights several security trends.  

First, is the interconnectedness of modern security debates.  Security issues are increasingly inter-connected, some examples include; NATO’s recent Pacific focus and Azerbaijan’s support for Kanak independence in New Caledonia.  Modern communications mean that people around the world can rapidly share information, at a very personal and persuasive level that provides an enormous sense of community and connectedness.  Anyone following the Ukraine or Gaza conflicts will understand how very diverse groups of people can now connect globally over a security issue, supporting sides morally and practically. A feature of modern conflict that military and security planners need to understand and adapt too. 

Philippines and Ukraine connect because they suffer a similar security issue, a large and aggressive neighbour and both rely on the rules-based order and collective security to protect their interests.  So, it makes sense for these geographically separated nations to be connecting and supporting each other advocating for other nations to support the rules-based order. 

A foreign policy strategy of both Russia and China is seeking to engage with other nations bi-laterally. For instance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was cast by Russia as akin to re-unification and therefore not something other countries should be involved in. Likewise, China describes its engagement with Philippines in the South China Sea as legal enforcement of China’s claim to the territory in question.  The dialogue in both cases aiming to frame the confrontation as bi-lateral, a conflict that other countries should not concern themselves with, a deliberate tactic designed to undermine collective security. The aim is to encourage potential supporters to ‘look the other way’ and allow the aggressor to dictate terms to the smaller nation. This tactic should be noted by all small nations because if this strategy proves effective in Ukraine, the South China Sea or Taiwan we can expect it to be used elsewhere. The counter to this strategy is collective security exercised through the rules-based order. 

Canadian review of foreign interference in government 

In May, the Canadian Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions published an initial 194-page report detailing foreign interference in recent Canadian elections.  This month, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians tabled the final report in parliament, titled the ‘Special Report on Foreign Interference in Canada’s Democratic Processes and Institutions.’

The report is not surprising to people interested in defence and security issues, and documents interference by several nations including China, India and Pakistan. The report highlights deliberate targeting of elected officials stating that “CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and CSE (Communications Security Establishment) have produced a body of intelligence that demonstrates that foreign actors have targeted federal parliamentarians to collect information to support potential future efforts to coerce them. Foreign actors have also intimidated or pressured parliamentarians who they perceived as having taken political positions counter to theirs.” Generally, the report found that the people targeted were unaware of the situation but noted that “Some elected officials, however, began wittingly assisting foreign state actors soon after their election.”  A worrying precedent that is being highlighted in Canadian media. 

Essentially, the report highlights widespread and well-coordinated intelligence operations in which “…foreign states developed clandestine networks surrounding candidates and elected officials to gain undisclosed influence and leverage over nomination processes, elections, parliamentary business and government decision-making.”  A very worrying trend for a liberal democratic nation. 

The report also discusses coercion and repression of migrant communities by intelligence agencies from their home countries.  The report’s ‘Transnational Repression’ section highlights China’s use of unofficial police stations in Canada, stating that “The PRC (People’s Republic of China) established these stations without Canada’s permission and in contravention of the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act. CSIS assessed that a key purpose of these stations was “to collect intelligence and monitor former PRC residents living in Canada as part of the PRC’s broader transnational anticorruption, repression, and repatriation campaign.” Regular readers will be familiar with China’s use of unofficial police stations around the world and the report discusses the need to address this issue in most large Canadian cities.

The report provides a window into the murky world of intelligence operations and about how nations seek to influence political decision-making abroad. It highlights a range of threats and reinforces the need for transparency in government.  Further, the need for liberal democracies to protect migrant communities that suffer coercion from their home nation’s government. Threats that are especially important to understand and counter in the South West Pacific.  A region characterised by relatively small and young democracies that could be more easily influenced.  

Larger South West Pacific nations like Australia and New Zealand with large migrant communities also need to be aware of these threats and work hard to counter them, protecting immigrant communities and deterring this type of activity. Canadian President Justin Trudeau is currently facing difficult questions because of claims that his government did not act in 2019 when intelligence agencies first highlighted these concerns. 

The full report can be found here – 

 

 

Melanesian update 

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

Solomon Islands election results challenged

Radio New Zealand reported this week that more than half (28 of 50) seats in the new Solomon Islands parliament are subject to electoral petitions challenging their results.  Another example of the issues facing small nations in the South West Pacific, like the wide spread use of ‘No Confidence’ motions in parliaments, these petitions speak to the weakness of democratic and state institutions in some small South West Pacific nations. 

In larger nations with stronger state institutions these types of legal challenges are harder to substantiate or to reasonably argue, dis-incentivising their use. However, in a small nation with limited resources to deliver an election a challenge like this is easier to justify.  This situation could be very de-stabilising as parties argue the election result. Additionally, some of these challenges could develop into future conflict if they are not resolved efficiently.

Australian and Chinese diplomacy steps-up after Solomon Islands election

Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong recently visited Solomon Islands, expressing Australia’s support for a closer relationship.  During the visited she announced AUD $ 3.4 million in funding for aid to forty local schools. The new Prime Minister, Jerimiah Manele has already discussed defence and security matters with Australian Defence Minister, Richard Marles.

Simultaneously, senior Chinese official Qian Bo meeting with Prime Minister Manele and re-iterating the two nations ‘special relationship. China provides considerable financial, educational and police support to Solomon Islands.

This activity demonstrates the value that China and Australia both place on influence in the Solomon Islands and Melanesia more broadly. 

Papua New Guinea ‘No Confidence’ motion in Prime Minister update

This week the Speaker of the Papua New Guinea parliament rejected the opposition’s ‘No Confidence’ motion in Prime Minister James Marape.  The Speaker, Job Pomat is seeking legal advice and reinforced the gravitas of the situation including the need to govern a ‘No Confidence’ motion carefully. This considered approach should contribute to political stability in the nation. 

Bougainville independence debate continues 

Bougainville’s independence is still a contentious issue, the island’s referendum on independence demonstrated that local people want independence and the next step is for the issue to be debated in the Papua New Guinea parliament.  However, there is disagreement about the majority required in parliament for cessation.  Current government policy is that the vote requires a two-thirds majority, the island’s local government argues that a simple majority should be all that is required and is pushing Papua New Guinea’s parliament to decide by 2027. 

Like New Caledonia, this issue is unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly.  Bougainville is mineral rich so Papua New Guinea is unlikely to give up control of the island easily. Further, Bougainville is a large island that links the Solomon Islands with Papua New Guinea so is strategically important.  Additionally, Australia has a strong security interest in ensuring this area is stable so will undoubtably be interested in the island’s future. 

Tribal fighting in Papua New Guinea

Fighting continues to be reported in Enga Province, the Asia Pacific Report website reporting 12 deaths in recent weeks. This fighting is near the recent landslide and is indicative of the on-going security issues in the highlands including how they can threaten relief efforts.  

 

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

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here