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

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US, Canada and Japan support Philippines in the South China Sea

On 16-17 June, warships from the Philippines, US, Canada and Japan conducted a ‘Maritime Cooperative Activity’ or exercise in the South China Sea.  The ships conducted manoeuvres designed to demonstrate these nations resolve, and capability to work together to deter aggression.

China claims most of the South China Sea. A claim that although not internationally recognised is enforced by China, using large and powerful ‘coast guard’ vessels. Enforcement of China’s claim creates a hybrid conflict with Philippines, one of several nations that’s territorial waters are infringed upon by China’s claim.  Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels often clash with Philippines Coast Guard and fishing vessels, manoeuvring dangerously close and using powerful fire hoses against their crews.

Philippines recently started to challenge China’s tactics, highlighting them in international media and working with partners and allies to deter them.  Part of the policy of deterrence is exercising with supporting navies to demonstrate the resolve and the ability to escalate, if required too.

Australian Pacific police plan

Australia is building a new police training centre in Brisbane, specifically to train police staff from other Pacific nations.  The centre will train police officers to a high standard, developing a reserve of well-trained staff that can be deployed to support small police forces across the Pacific.  Provisionally titled the ‘Pacific Police Support Group,’ the plan will develop an international pool of approximately 200 officers able to respond to natural disasters or serious violent threats like rioting.

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The plan is expensive costing roughly $ 400 million and takes Australia’s financial commitment to training Pacific police forces to approximately $700 million this financial year.  Australia clearly has a couple of aims, the first of which is to block China from using security support to gain influence in the South West Pacific.  Involvement in local police forces provides very good access to local intelligence and political influence, so is currently an area of Sino-Australian competition.

Secondly, the plan aims to improve stability in the South West Pacific by providing a well-trained group of Pacific police officers able to deploy quickly into trouble spots. Many parts of the Pacific have unique cultural traditions and perspectives that local people are more familiar with and can work more effectively within. Essentially, this project appears to be a recognition that operational effectiveness in the South West Pacific requires local knowledge and cultural sensitivity.

New Zealand and Australian media highlight foreign political influence

The issue of foreign influence in politics has been in the news this week in both Australia and New Zealand.  This activity follows the recent release of Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians –‘Special Report on Foreign Interference in Canada’s Democratic Processes and Institutions.’

In New Zealand, Stuff news’s investigative team released ‘The Long Game.’A report detailing allegations of Chinese influence in New Zealand politics, and concerns about the persecution of Chinese dissidents resident in the country. The incidents Stuff reports is like the activity described in the Canadian report, including the cultivation of political and business networks to provide inappropriate leverage on policy decisions. Additionally, it discusses the use of long-term disinformation operations designed to skew public opinion.

Australia’s media is currently investigating allegations of Indian political interference in Australia. The activity described matches the allegations made in New Zealand and reported in Canada.  Long-term well-planned and resourced intelligence operations designed to develop influence and monitor dissidents in ex-patriot communities.

A particularly disturbing feature of the events described in Canada, New Zealand and Australia is the persecution of ex-patriot communities by the intelligence services of their home nations.  That after re-locating to these nations, people are being coerced emotionally and sometimes physically by intelligence operatives from their homelands.  Some reports allege that ex-patriots have even been killed by assassins from their homeland because of their political activism in their new countries. A sad situation in countries that support free speech and welcome immigration.

It is important that people living in liberal democracies like Canada, New Zealand and Australia are aware of this activity and that their governments take steps to protect communities from it. Canada’s ‘Special Report on Foreign Interference in Canada’s Democratic Processes and Institutions’ is a strong response but came after years of warnings resulting in little action. Around the Pacific and the world, it is important that this activity is curbed.

Here is a link to the Stuff report – https://interactives.stuff.co.nz/circuit/china-the-long-game

Here is a link to an article written by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-06-17/modis-indian-government-accused-of-spying-silencing-critics/103974414

New Zealand to support enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea

This week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Christopher Luxon visited Japan. During the trip he announced that his nation will commit to an annual rotation of a naval vessel and a P 8 Poseidon aircraft to support enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea.

This gesture indicates that New Zealand wants to be part of the developing Indo-Pacific security architecture, led by the US, supporting the international rule of law. However, unlike other participating countries New Zealand’s defence budget is shrinking. An area of concern relevant to this deployment because the New Zealand Defence Force is suffering staff shortages.  The extensive use of defence force personnel in security roles during COVID and low pay are factors that impact on retention. A situation exacerbated by recent changes in Australian Defence Force recruiting policies that ‘open the door’ for New Zealanders to transfer to better paid jobs in Australia.

Low staffing levels mean that the Royal New Zealand Navy may struggle to maintain a long-term deployment.  Additionally, defence forces that lack staff for operational deployments often reduce leave, post-pone promotion courses and neglect collective training reducing their long-term capability.  A risk that the New Zealand Defence Force will need to manage carefully.

Additionally, there is a level of risk involved in this deployment. The Yellow and East China Seas are bordered by China, and there is a history of harassment of ships and aircraft enforcing UN sanctions.  Recently, on 7 June 2024, the Dutch ship HMNLS Tromp and its helicopters were harassed by Chinese aircraft, prompting a complaint by Netherlands to the Chinese government.

Regular readers will remember that in May this year an Australian helicopter was ‘buzzed’ by a Chinese fighter that fired flares in its path and that late last year a Chinese warship injured Australian divers working underwater, by ‘pinging’ them with its sonar.  Canadian aircraft and ships have also been harassed in similar ways in this area.  Although, its defence budget is shrinking this deployment is a strong indication that New Zealand is keen to support the security architecture that protects the international rules-based order and accepts any associated risk.

More discussion about drones in low-intensity littoral conflict

On 15 June, it was reported that Houthi missiles and sea drones attacked and badly damaged the bulk carrier Tutor, in the Red Sea. Another example of the effectiveness of cheap and easily produced sea drones. Weapons already making a significant impact in Ukraine.

Sea drones are small and hard to detect on radar because they merge with the radar ‘clutter’ created by waves. The difficulty detecting them on radar means that attacking at night or in bad weather they are hard to identify and target, factors that have proven deadly to Russian warships in the Black Sea.

The archipelagos of the Pacific provide an excellent hunting ground for these weapons.  For instance, areas like Solomon Islands’ Western and Choiseul Provinces are both dotted with small rugged islands from which attacks could be launched. The small islands providing protection from radar until an attacking drone is dangerously close to its target. Further, sea drones are relatively cheap and easy to produce, so are likely to proliferate quickly, even in the Pacific.

A counter to this threat is aerial surveillance by drone or helicopter, probably using thermal imaging to locate potential threats. Aerial platforms providing ‘look down’ surveillance that can spot sea drones against wave clutter, hidden close to coast lines or behind islands.

The drone carrying support ships discussed in last week’s Pacific Brief, may provide a more cost-effective answer to this threat than crewed helicopters. A drone carrier, operating medium sized-drones providing a powerful surveillance asset for littoral task groups operating in these types of environments. Additionally, armed drones provide a longer-range means of defence.  It is easy to see a future with hunter-killer drone teams, working from drone carriers providing long-range defence against sea drones in complex littoral waters.

Capabilities that the larger navies looking to operate in the of the South West Pacific need to be investigating because using crewed helicopters is much more expensive and cost is an important consideration of long, slow low-intensity operations.

Melanesian update

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

New Fijian patrol boat, still stuck on a reef

RFNS Puamau, a Guardian Class patrol boat donated to Fiji by Australia, ran aground last week and is stuck on a reef near the Lau Islands.  The patrol boat appears to be badly damaged. The crew has been evacuated and salvage equipment is on its way to the area. The loss of this vessel on its first patrol would be an embarrassment for the Royal Fiji Naval Service.

New Caledonia, the financial impact of recent violence

This week news services reported that the colonial administration in New Caledonia has requested approximately 260 million euros of financial support from France.  The impact of the recent disorder has obviously been significant and the colony’s tax revenue is reduced. Roughly 500 businesses were looted and an estimated 7,000 people have lost their jobs, an economic impact calculated at a billion euros by the local Chamber of Commerce.

It is an important lesson about the impact of insecurity on economic stability, violence started in March meaning that the colony’s community spent four months dealing with damage to property, reduced tourism revenue and curfews.  All factors that reduce economic productivity and tax revenue. Reinforcing the need for fast and effective security response capability, or being able to rapidly lots of police and soldiers to stop violence and provide stability.

Bougainville leaders visit Solomon Islands

Last week, independence leaders from Bougainville visited Solomon Islands to discuss the island’s independence.  In the 1980s and 90s Bougainville fought a fierce war for independence. The war finished with a commitment from Papua New Guinea to explore the island’s independence. A plebiscite referendum was held in 2019, the result of which was that Bougainville’s inhabitants wanted independence. The next agreed step in the process is Papua New Guinea’s government considering it and voting to decide if Bougainville can break away.  The vote has been put off several times and now Bougainville’s independence supporters have suggested a new route to self-determination.

In March this year, Ezekiel Masatt, Bougainville’s representative suggested that instead of following the planned steps, the island could simply declare independence.  A draft Bougainville constitution was made public and circulated. Masatt suggested Bougainville could follow Papua New Guinea’s example, it gained independence from Australia by writing a constitution and declaring independence.  The Bougainvillian leaders in Solomon Islands are currently discussing the draft constitution with their compatriots living in that country.

This is a small but interesting piece of news because the Bougainville Resistance Army’s fight against the Papua New Guinea was supported by supplies smuggled to Bougainville via Solomon Islands. Meaning that there is a strong existing network of relationships between the two countries. Additionally, Bougainville has high youth unemployment and a recent history of violence that combined with a desire for independence means there is a potential for politically motivated violence. Currently, Sino-Australian tension is high and Solomon Islands, Bougainville and Papua New Guinea are at the centre of this trend, introducing another complicating factor to the situation.  Therefore, my advice is to watch Bougainville closely because this situation may continue to escalate.

 

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

1 COMMENT

  1. As Ben describes the feverish preparations being made for war in this region, in detail. Israeli forces training alongside New Zealand forces will be sharing their tactics for fighting this war.
    Some tips our boys and girls may pick up, first cut off all food and water and power to the civilian population. Bomb all the hospitals so that the enemy Drs. cannot treat the sick and wounded.
    Human shields; Now here’s a good, tip tie wounded enemy fighters to the front of your armoured vehicles when going on sorties.

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