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


More violence in New Caledonia

On 24 June, violence flared up again in New Caledonia. The violence started after the removal of seven independence activists to France for trial on charges related to the recent riots.  In a statement issued on 23 June, government prosecutor Yves Dupas, described the removal as follows “This transfer was organised during the night by means of a plane specially chartered for the mission.” Further, the initial statement by authorities did not confirm the charges being laid, although they were clarified later. 

In my opinion this decision reeks of 19th century colonial tactics, the rendition of independence leaders from their local communities to face charges half a world away was once common practice.  Historically, all colonial powers have used this tactic but history demonstrates it is ineffective.  Taking people away from their communities, support networks and legal representatives undermines the legitimacy of the ‘rule of law.’ 

Any stability or counter-insurgency operation is based on legitimacy. British strategy during the Malayan Emergency is often used as a case-study for the management of a complex counter-insurgency.  Initially, the British response was the heavy handed and coercive ‘Briggs Plan,’ a plan that failed. After two years of conflict, a second more nuanced plan that acknowledged the requirement to find a political solution was developed called the ‘Templar Plan.’ This plan focussed heavily on building legitimacy and trust in the rule of law.  

Unlike the Malayan Emergency, France does not appear to have plans to allow its colony independence.  However, this does not mean that a political solution of some nature is out of the question, but reaching a practical political solution is less likely when the colonial government has limited trust.  It is likely that transporting these independence activists to France will add fuel to the fire, reduce local trust in the French authorities and increase the potential for violence.  

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South China Sea, Philippines goes legal, China gets physical 

Last week, there has been more activity in the South China Sea.  Specifically, focussed on Second Thomas Shoal, approximately 200km from the Philippines coast. The shoal is inside the Philippines’s Exclusive Economic Zone and is approximately 1,180km from the closest part of China.   

On 15 June, Philippines announced that it is seeking a ruling on the extent of its undersea territory, from the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. An appeal to the United Nations for a public statement confirming the legal rights of both parties. China will obviously contest this claim.  Tactically, it looks like Philippines is countering Chinese activities that appear to be a doctrine called ‘legal warfare.’ A technique described in the 2003 Political Work Regulations of the Peoples Liberation Army.  

Essentially, legal warfare involves developing a legal claim that can be used to justify the use of coercive measures.  In this case, China uses the ‘9 Dash Line’ as the basis for justifying ownership of the South China Sea.  It then enforces the claim using Coast Guard and militia forces rather than its navy, casting the conflict with Philippines as enforcement of a legitimate claim rather than and aggressive occupation of a territory.  The legal claim is disputed and international arbitration in 2016 ruled against China. By seeking a ruling from the United Nations, Philippines is aiming to dispute China’s claim and undermine the narrative that its actions in the South China Sea are justifiable enforcement of a substantive claim. 

On 17 June, Chinese Coastguard personnel boarded Philippines ships resupplying the nation’s garrison on the Second Thomas Shoal. The shoal is approximately 200km from the Philippines coast, is inside the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone and is approximately 1,180km from the closest part of China.  Philippines Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Romeo Brawner condemned China’s actions claiming that its coast guard officers ‘acted like pirates’ and were armed with knives and spears.

China’s response was to blame Philippines, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official stating “China urges the Philippines to stop its infringement and provocation at once.” The incident on 17 June, is a significant escalation because it involves a physical confrontation. Philippines claims that two sailors were injured in the incident.  Previously, Philippines President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has stated that the death of a Philippines national is a ‘red line’ for his nation.  China’s willingness to take this risk by forcibly boarding a Philippine’s ship indicates the nation is willing to test US resolve.  The US being Philippine’s security guarantor through the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty, an agreement that the US has been clear applies to Second Thomas Shoal.

The South China Sea is tense, Philippines Ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez stating concerns about the risks of escalation last week, already Japan, Canada, Australia and the US are committed to helping Philippines. Alongside these nations is a web of partnerships and alliances that could quickly draw a wide range of countries into the conflict.  Fortunately, the situation is forcing China and the US to talk more. Last week, Nicholas Burns, US Ambassador to China spoke to the BBC about the tensions, confirming that both China and the US are in regular dialogue to manage the situation and prevent escalation.

My assessment is that this tension is a test of resolve, China’s economy is not strong and for all the commentary and media hype its military is still far weaker than that of the US.  Instead, we are watching a long, slow hybrid campaign that is currently testing how far the Philippines and its allies are willing to ‘push back.’  

Maritime conflict involves discrete and controllable force, ships and aircraft. It does not have the same unpredictable nature and risk of civilian harm as land conflict.  Historically, the sea has often been used by great powers to test each other in a lower consequence and more controlled environment. 

Japan and Philippines security agreement

Increasing tension in the South China Sea is encouraging Japan and Philippines to work together more closely. On 8 July, leaders from both nations plan to meet in Manilla to finalise details of a new security agreement.  Japan has a larger and more sophisticated military; and is already engaged in a similar conflict with China in the East China Sea. 

Based on previous statements the security agreement is likely to include access to each other’s bases. It is also likely to include Japan supplying surveillance assets like radars and patrol boats to Philippines to support the nation’s enforcement of its territorial claims.  Japan has already provided radar equipment and about a dozen patrol boats.

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 is still stuck on a reef near the Lau Islands.  It ran aground two weeks ago and appears to be badly damaged. This week it was reported that Australia has sent salvage equipment to Fiji to help re-float the vessel.  

This incident is an embarrassment for Fiji’s military and an independent Board of Inquiry has been convened to investigate how the incident happened. Later in the week, Fiji’s Home Affairs Minister, Pio Tikoduadua called for the findings of the inquiry to be made public. 

Papua New Guinea and US militaries exercise disaster response

US service personnel exercised disaster relief operations with their Papua New Guinean colleagues from 18-21 June. This is the second in a series of annual ‘Disaster Response Exercise and Exchanges’ aiming to use military support to improve the nation’s resilience to natural disasters.

The exercise was hosted in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea and included personnel from the US Army, the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and the Papua New Guinea National Disaster Centre. 

This exercise is a good example of how militaries can be used as a form of diplomatic ‘soft power.’ The US military’s logistics, planning and training capabilities are a useful resource that can help smaller nations, like Papua New Guinea improve not just their military skills but also those required to respond to natural disasters. This activity builds relationships and partnerships that in turn strengthen American influence in the region.

Solomon Islands and Vanuatu sign border agreement

The Tirvau Agreement about cross border relationships was signed between Solomon Islands and Vanuatu last week. Although separated by approximately 650km, the nations share a common oceanic border and the agreement provides a framework for day-to-day travel, trade and economic interactions between Temotu, Solomon Island’s westernmost province and Vanuatu’s Torba province.

Monitoring and managing these activities is surprisingly difficult in many parts of the South West Pacific. The area’s large distances, small population and limited law enforcement resources mean that there is often little surveillance or control of movement. Additionally, local familial and community relationships do not always match legally recognised borders so documents like the Tirvau Agreement become important providing an opportunity to synchronise historic social and economic networks with modern governance.  Agreements that manage these interactions are especially important because they help monitor and control local movements that drug traffickers can use to hide their trade.  

Solomon Islands Prime Minster meets Australian Prime Minister

On 26 June, Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Jeremiah Manele met Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra.  Australia is Solomon Islands largest foreign donor. It is currently competing with China for influence in the nation. Solomon Islands is a key area of security interest for Australia. Its location at the heart of Melanesia and proximity to Australia mean that any Chinese influence either diplomatic, economic or military is of intense interest.  The nation’s previous Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare signed a security deal with China that sparked concern in Australia.

Although Australia’s prime motivation is security, Solomon Islands appears to be focussed on economic development. Australia’s Prime Minister reinforced security at a joint press conference after the meeting, while Prime Minister Manele stated that “We are keen to work with all partners, with Australia and China, (on) how we can partner together to create transformational projects and programs in Solomon Islands that create jobs.” 

Small Pacific nations sometimes describe a disconnect between themselves and larger powers. This meeting may provide an insight into this type of dialogue. Historically, small South West Pacific nations have consistently prioritised issues like climate change and economic development. However, the diplomacy of larger nations tends to be security focused. This difference in prioritisation needs to be reconciled to build a successful security architecture in the South West Pacific.


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


  1. When Ben praises the British “Templar Plan” against the people of Malaysia, what he is praising is the internment of most Malaysian Chinese in concentration camps, the deportation of persons of full or partial Chinese ethnic origin who had lived in Malaysia for centuries to China, and the promotion of racial hatred between ethnic Malays and Malays of Chinese origin that persists to this day. Ben sure does hate those communists, or Chinese, or whatever he’s calling the people he hates on any given day.

  2. What are the imperialist powers interests in this region?
    (The question Ben Morgan never asks)

    British Malaya
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,of%20tin%20and%20later%20rubber.

    ….the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore that were brought under British hegemony or control between the late 18th and the mid-20th century…..

    …Under British hegemony, Malaya was one of the most profitable territories of the Empire, being the world’s largest producer of tin and later rubber.

    How about that. Nothing to do with the rule of law or promoting democracy, as Ben Morgan alludes, more about naked imperialist greed.

    • “Any stability or counter-insurgency operation is based on legitimacy. British strategy during the Malayan Emergency is often used as a case-study for the management of a complex counter-insurgency.” Ben Morgan

      Let’s look at Ben Morgan’s “case study”.

      The British Empire’s My Lai

      …..Scots Guards, surrounded a rubber plantation at Sungai Rimoh near Batang Kali in Selangor. The Guards then rounded up civilians. The Guards separated the men from the women and children for interrogation. The Scots Guards promptly massacred 24 unarmed men from the village with automatic weapons.[8]…

      “The bodies were covered in flies. They were bloated and swollen, lying in groups of three or four. Finally I found my father. He had been shot in the chest. That day, December 12th, had been my birthday. My mother cried almost every day. She brought me and my sister up. When the baby was born she gave it away for adoption. She only stopped crying when I married and her granddaughter was born. She was 92 when she died.”[12]

      British courts ruled that although the Scots Guards had massacred innocent civilians and that this was possibly a war crime committed by the British Army, they also ruled that the government was not obliged to hold a public inquiry because the massacre happened too long ago, and that due to a legal technicality nobody could be held legally responsible.[11] This ruling was condemned by various human rights organisations and legal experts who argued that such a decision could be used to justify many historic instances of war crimes committed by the British military.[12]
      In May 2012 the judicial review on the British government’s position was held at the High Court of Justice in London.[23]
      On 4 September 2012, the High Court’s judges in London upheld a government decision not to hold a public hearing into the killing.[13]

      Ben Morgan never questions what interest the British Empire had in Malaya. (or indeed, what the current French imperialists’ interests are in New Caledonia.)

      Ben weakly criticises current French tactics in New Caledonia but overall Ben excuses or ignores the excesses of Western imperialism generally, especially British and US imperialist atrocities. Ben may weakly criticise the French, but deliberately ignores the genocide being committed in Gaza aided and abbetted by the US and Britain.

  3. How much of this guesswork is predicated on a Biden victory in November? Unless the democrats pull finger soon one of the key players in the region will have different priorities than they currently do, and as a consequence others will be emboldened to act.

  4. NZ is just as bad we put Maori in prisons in record numbers miles away from their whanau making it hard for whanau to visit impacting on there ability to rehabilitate and fit back into their whanau and communities. As for the French we should have let the Germans wipe them out.

    • I mean if you look at who was killing the French in WW2 it was mainly the Brits and Yanks doing the job. They deliberately slaughtered tens of thousands of French civilians in the Normandy invasion alone. Apparently those nasty Normans were being human shields for the Germans or something.

      • Mohammed, methinks you are drawing a long straw. Civilian casualties were always going to occur with the liberation of France. Nobody in France had any illusion as to Nazi indifference to civilians casualties.

        I like your passion at whipping the Empire, Normandy doesn’t need relitigation.

  5. Ben Morgan regularly gives us updates detailing the war in Ukraine and the standoff between the West and China in the Pacific.
    ‘The Daily Blog’ resident military blogger strict self censorship of the Middle East to cover up the genocide being committed in Gaza, (by our side) – makes him miss important developments in the Western/Chinese global economic and strategic standoff.

    Like for instance, China supplying the Yemenis weapons to attack Western Shipping in the Red Sea.

    US struggles to deter Houthi threat as crisis spirals
    BY BRAD DRESS – 06/30/24 8:00 AM ET

    “….. the threat never really goes away, and you’re just constantly in this game of defense.”
    The Navy is also spending a lot of resources in the fight, typically firing a $4 million surface-to-air missile to take down far cheaper Houthi drones.
    The Biden administration says the cost of not defending commercial shipping would be much higher, but Clark said the strategy may not be sustainable.
    “If this goes for another year and the Navy didn’t change its tactics, the Navy would be in a bind, because it would start running out of these interceptors that it’s using to shoot down the drones,” he said.

    ….In other efforts, Washington designated the Houthis as a specially designated global terrorist, which restricts funding sources but is not as harsh as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation. And the Treasury Department announced sanctions this month that targeted several individuals and entities helping to supply the Houthis, including one person from China.

    Ben Morgan blathers on about all the military exercises and war games are about deterrence, well it’s not working.

    China and the US are already at war, attacking each other’s interests through a proxy in the Middle East.

    China and Western economic and military empires are on a collision course. Ben Morgan blathers on about this war is about protecting the international rule of law, in reality this war is over access to resources and trade.

    As the US acts to restrict Chinese trade, the drums of war get louder.

  6. The Trump stacked US Supreme Court has ruled that the President of the United States POTUS is above the law.

    Ben Morgan has long argued that Aotearoa needs to join the Western Alliance to fight to defend the International Rule of Law, rigorously ignoring the West’s breaches of International Law in the Middle East.

    I wonder if Ben Morgan can ignore the fact that the President of the US has been ruled to be above the law, when he advocates that NZ should join AUKUS?

    Under the new US Supreme Court ruling, Richard Nixon would not have been impeached for his criminal activities in the Watergate break in.

    Can Ben Morgan still argue that we need to join an alliance led by a power not bound by law, either domestic or international?

    When Donald Trump becomes president, and starts exercising his new power to disregard all domestic and international law will Ben Morgan and the New Zealand military community blindly commit to follow the Trump administration into whatever breach of international law they choose to commit, even if it is against the will of the New Zealand people?

    My guess? Probably.

  7. Ben has possibly written his most sinister sentence yet.

    This plan focussed heavily on building legitimacy and trust in the rule of law. Ben Morgan

    Powers that don’t follow or comply to rule of law, want others to have confidence in it Of course they do. Who wouldn’t want laws that apply to everyone else but not to them?

    Second Thought 3 days ago
    Why Doesn’t International Law Apply to the West?

    @ 0:31 minutes:
    for years now legal observers and human rights groups have lambasted international law as little more than a tool for Western interests…

    @ 9:10 minutes
    …..the ICC has predominantly focused on African Leaders, with cases involving president Omar Al Basher, Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and Ugandan warlord Joseph Coney among others. And while yes, these prosecutions are important, the glaring absence of cases against Western leaders or their allies raises serious questions about the partiality of the Court, especially given the extent and severity of the war crimes committed by Western regimes.
    This isn’t a coincidence, it reflects the political realities that shape international law and is exemplified by a recent interaction between ICC prosecutor Kareem Khan and a senior elected leader, where they said to Khan, “The international criminal court is built for Africa and thugs like Putin….

    @ 13:51 minutes:
    …..Back to the present ICC case. Will Israeli leaders be brought to justice for their crimes against humanity? No of course not.


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