On 6 July the Associated Press (AP) Agency referred to official information sources from Australia and New Zealand in its announcement stating that during the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in September of this year, representatives from Australia and New Zealand are set to sign a new security agreement with other PIF members, with the agreement factoring in China’s increasing influence in the region.
However, statements, made by ministers of foreign affairs of Australia and New Zealand, concerning this issue were expressed using fairly general and cautious language towards China and did not contain any concrete information about the future document.
It is worth reminding the readers that the Forum (given with its current name in 2000) was established in 1971 thanks to the efforts by two of its key members, Australia and New Zealand. At present, aside from the previously mentioned nations, it includes16 independent island nations of the Pacific Ocean.
Other than establishing cooperation means in the economic sphere, PIF’s key function includes agreeing on joint security measures, whose core document was the so called Biketawa Declaration (named after one of the Kiribati islands), approved during a scheduled Pacific Islands Forum in 2000.
According to this Declaration, Australia and New Zealand, as “guarantors of security” of PIF members, have the right to base their military forces in any of the PIА territories with the aim of ensuring internal political stability there.
PIF continues to bear the hallmarks of an organization established at times of the Cold War, when it was part of ANZUS (Australia+New Zealand+United States), one of the key military political alliances created by the USA in order to contain the spread of communism in the Indo-Pacific.
In 2000s the reasons for retaining the security aspects within PIF’s functions were updated and included the need to combat the emerging issue of terrorism.
Notably, at that time China’s transformation into the second super-power and key US geopolitical rival was in its infancy stages. There was still hope to incorporate China into the US-centered world order, which is why naming Beijing as the key reason for retaining the long-established military political structures in the Indo-Pacific was premature.
Hence, proverbial terrorism’s “transitory” role has now outlived its usefulness, and the time has call a spade a spade . It would be appropriate to remind the readers that at the time the “issue of (radical Islamic) terrorism” was born, American experts, who at the end the 1990s attempted to research this new phenomenon for the first time, decidedly accused London of creating this problem.
In the past few years, China became the main subject of the multifaceted thorough research conducted by the key think tanks in the USA, which is a clear indicator that Washington views PRC as the main challenger to its geopolitical interests.
The latter led to the US shift towards the Indo-Pacific, announced during Barack Obama’s presidency and confirmed by the current US leader. At the same time, existing military political organizations are updating and refocusing their aims towards China, and there are attempts to establish new anti-Chinese alliances.
One of the largest scale and most recent initiatives of this nature became the “Quadrilateral alliance” (dubbed as the “Quad” by journalists), which was established as far back as 2007. Initially, its intentions included attempting to put the alliance’s abstract words into practice, these words were being espoused by US political scientists towards the need of creating an “Asian NATO”.
The military political alliance, the Quad, was meant to include the USA, Japan, India and Australia. The two failed attempts to implement this initiative has resulted in its removal from the political Indo-Pacific agenda at present, due to reasons that have been repeatedly discussed in the New Eastern Outlook (NEO).
Under such circumstances, the significance of ANZUS is growing in Washington’s eyes and, seemingly, the intention is to task this alliance with monitoring the situation in the Pacific Rim section of the Indo-Pacific.
This what the author’s analysis of the previously mentioned announcement by AP, and it would be worthwhile to add a few remarks to my thoughts.
Firstly, China has been using its key foreign policy tools, stemming from its accumulated economic potential, to successfully establish its position in “developing” nations (the category that all the Oceania nations belong to). And, in turn, these countries have not only demonstrated no objection to the Chinese expansion but even welcome it, with a few insignificant exceptions (that are unique in each particular case). The most widely discussed topic in the island nations of the Pacific Rim is the scale of China’s expanding “shadow” economy. We can fairly confidently assume that falling under Chinese military control is not viewed as a real (or further still threatening) possibility by the leadership of these Oceania nations. However, this possibility does worry Washington first and foremost, and to a certain extent today’s Canberra as well. From May to June of this year, PRC and Australia engaged in a war of words about (the supposedly existing) plans by China to build a military base in Vanuatu. It is hard to believe that this nation (along with most of the other small Pacific island PIF member-states) would show any enthusiasm towards an initiative aimed at, either secretly or openly, engaging in some anti-Chinese political military organizations.
Secondly, Australia (officially, the key acting representative of the new security initiative at the PIF in September) is in the midst of general parliamentary elections, which could, by the summer of 2019, completely restructure the nation’s internal political landscape. We cannot rule out that the Labor Party will return to power, and, notably, it was one of the key “instigators” of the first (towards the end of the last decade) removal of the “Quad” initiative from the agenda. The “Chinse threat” is clearly not its foreign policy forte.
At present, the ruling conservative party is in a fairly uncomfortable position in relation to both Beijing and Washington, which can be best described as a “political leg split”. Still, the conservatives (in comparison to the labor party) do gravitate more towards the USA when it comes to solving national security issues.
And the fact remains that the current Canberra leadership (clearly with support from Washington) has seemingly decided to “pull off a deal” with the PIF member nations, without waiting for the results of the upcoming elections in Australia.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”