With the coming to power of the new US president Donald Trump, the tiny countries of Oceania, which have always been in dire need of additional funding, have made attempts to find out how far his pre-election slogan “Let’s make America great again!” will extend. Specifically, whether America might not be willing to grow its geopolitical influence in the Pacific by increasing its funding for development programs, issuing additional training grants, increasing the amount of subsidies to combat global warming, which is threatening to flood more than half the South Pacific islands, and so on?
That said, the most important players in the South Pacific — Australia and New Zealand, whose responsibilities include financial and political ‘patronage’ over the countries of Oceania — have hoped to strengthen relations with the new American administration in order to work together to contain the growing power of China in the region.
All the small island states of Oceania have long been accustomed to playing along in the interests of regional powers: USA, Australia, New Zealand and France, and since the mid-2000’s – China, for its own benefit. In particular, Fiji has been the most successful in this regard. Without wasting time, immediately after Trump was elected to the presidential post in November 2016, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama appealed to the American leader to save the Pacific Islands from extinction due to the rising sea level.
Trump has not only refused to provide Fiji with financial assistance to combat global warming, but he has also announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 to avoid further requests from other drowning island countries in Oceania, Tuvalu and Kiribati being prime examples. The reason for this step was Trump’s unwavering conviction that global warming is just a “hoax”.
The New York Times has noted that such an approach negates all scientific developments in the field of climate research over the past 200 years, and called Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement “foolish and reckless“.
The president of the sinking Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine feels the same. She recently appealed to the international community with a call to “knock some sense into” Trump, noting that after such a decision, faith in the world leadership of the United States was now a big question. The Marshall Islands is one of the strategically important points for the United States in the Pacific Ocean. It is here that the Americans conducted nuclear tests in the 1940-60s, and today, the Kwajalein Atoll hosts an American missile defense system with 2,000 servicemen. Consequently, any disagreement with the Marshall Islands on financial matters does not bode well for Washington.
In the meantime, the American president has worsened relations not only with the small states of Oceania, but also with key players in the South Pacific Region, particularly Australia and New Zealand. In January 2017, Trump announced US withdrawal from the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, which was largely a New Zealand initiative. At the same time, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull followed up with a comment that, in the current situation, the US position in the TPP could eventually be taken over by China, whose economy has already surpassed that of the United States in a range of indicators.
At the same time, in his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, Leader of the PRC Xi Jingling stated that China would happily take over the role of world trade leader from the hands of the United States, which the US would voluntarily be giving up by leaving the TPP.
The American magazine Forbes wrote with regret that Trump had effectively handed over the Asia-Pacific Region as a “gift” to China, forever changing the global picture of the world to the loss of the US. And if the 11 member countries of the TPP previously sought to maintain American influence in a bid for the economic and geopolitical deterrence of China, the protectionist tactics of the new American administration have now doomed them to become subordinate to the economic interests of Beijing.
China has seized on this chance and has begun promoting its own trade initiative, The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, in the South Pacific Region. As early as March 2017, Premier Li Keqiang of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China visited Australia and New Zealand, with whom he concluded an agreement on cooperation to implement the initiative. By the way, New Zealand became the first of the developed Western countries to sign such an agreement with the PRC.
It should be noted that a month earlier, in February 2017, the relations between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull were somewhat darkened after a telephone conversation during which the US president sharply criticized the decision of the last administration under Obama to accept Middle Eastern refugees from temporary detention camps established by Australia on the island of Manus (Papua New Guinea) and in the island nation of Nauru.
The intolerant attitude of the new American president to foreigners is reflected in the fact that some of the island countries of Oceania, laying their hopes on the United States, have ceased issuing tourist visas to representatives of states “unloved” by Trump (for example, American Samoa denied a visa to a famous traveler from the Russian Federation in the spring of 2017). This will have a negative impact on the tourism image and, consequently, on the economies of the island States, which are unlikely to later be thankful to Trump for the falls in the growth of their GDP.
At the same time, American media made a series of publications to the effect that the US would not be out of place if it chose to reconsider the volumes of the financial assistance it provides to countries in Oceania.
Not wishing to support the claims for supremacy in the Pacific financially, but in an effort to retain the appearance of power, Trump has undertaken a completely different, crude and unwary tactic. In April and May 2017, the American president decided to “scare” North Korea and launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles (without nuclear warheads) on the Kwajalein Atoll of the Marshall Islands.
There is no point in thinking that the DPRK has been left in debt; on the contrary, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened Trump with a retaliatory missile launch by mid-August 2017 into the area of the largest American base in the Pacific Ocean, located on Guam (with 6,000 military personnel). Fortunately for Trump, in mid-August, Kim Jong-un retracted his statement, apparently appearing wiser than his American counterpart. However, one can only guess what kind of emotions the people of Guam feel about Trump.
Equally frightened by the threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the DPRK are the rest of the states in close proximity to Guam, namely Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, etc. North Korean missiles could also cause considerable damage to the strategically important French real estate in the Pacific Ocean – New Caledonia, which has the world’s fourth-largest nickel reserves and a military base.
This issue is being discussed with great concern by the media not only in the small, defenseless countries of Oceania, but also in Australia and New Zealand. Australia reasonably believes that, in the event of war, at least its northern part, where 2,500 American troops are located in Darwin, would suffer considerably. And in New Zealand, as if anticipating the event, as early as March 2017, a documentary on a possible nuclear conflict in the Pacific Ocean dubbed “The Coming War On China” by the famous Australian-British writer and journalist John Pilger was released.
To sum up, it should be noted that Donald Trump’s political stance on the Pacific has led to a complication of US relations with the states of the South Pacific Region. It is quite apparent that in the future, Trump will religiously adhere to the principles of trade protectionism and antiglobalization that he has been declaring since his early days in office; principles that shall not involve the injection of American capital into the coffers and for the enrichment of the South Pacific countries. Moreover, Trump’s shortsighted policy is capable of catapulting the region to the brink of a nuclear war. Such a policy results in a loss of confidence in the United States among key players in the South Pacific region, namely Australia and New Zealand, and behind them the rest of the countries of Oceania. This, in turn, would soon enable China to fully take over control of the entire Pacific Ocean. And in what way, be it financial or military, Greater China will “bury” the “American Sheriff”, only time will tell.
Sofia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine – “New Eastern Outlook.”