In 2022, the competition between Australia, the United States and China over spheres of influence in Oceania, the planet’s vastest region occupying the South Pacific, intensified. This has led to destabilization of relations of the small island states of the region. And while it has turned out to be easy to destroy decades-old architecture, the process of rebuilding it will be time-consuming and arduous.
The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is the largest inter-governmental organization in Oceania with 18 members (the 2 main ones are Australia and New Zealand, 12 are independent small island states and the rest are dependent territories, 2 of which are owned by France and another 2 by New Zealand). Since its creation in 1971, the principal goals of PIF have been the development of general regional strategy and coordination of coherent economic policy. The added value of the Forum lies in the ability for high-profile representatives of the member states to meet in person once a year, with such meetings being difficult to hold more often because of the “tyranny of distance” – the vast expanse that spreads between islands in the Pacific. The Forum changes its venue each time and is held in one of the Oceanian member states.
Since 1989, the Forum has introduced a system of dialogue partnerships for non-regional donor states, a list that has rapidly expanded and now includes 21 dialogue partners of the PIF, among which there’s nuclear powers like India, the PRC, the UK and the US, and even unexpected donors such as Cuba and Turkey. It is therefore difficult to imagine the extent of geostrategic game unleashed by global actors in Oceania.
In this regard, in recent years there has been less consensus at the Forum among Oceania’s leaders, traditionally united by the concept of the “Pacific Way”, as the “Way” has become a thorny path and disagreements are appearing more often. The reason for this is the great battle for spheres of influence waged in the Pacific by the three aforementioned actors, Australia, China and the US.
Australia and its staunch ally New Zealand act as guardians of security in Oceania, using their capabilities to protect the vast maritime territories of small island states surrounded by 200-mile exclusive economic zones. The US has a large naval base not only in Hawaii but also in Micronesia on Guam. Washington is also seeking to strengthen its nuclear component in the region as part of the AUKUS bloc established in September 2021. In its turn, China is building its Belt and Road trade and economic route through the South Pacific, which passes through eight Oceanian states that Beijing wants to secure for Chinese goods passing through and is probing the soil to deploy its military bases there. So far, only Solomon Islands has signed a security framework agreement in April 2022, but several other poorest countries of Oceania could be next in line.
The clash of interests in the Pacific between Washington, Canberra and Beijing gradually increased the misunderstanding between the Oceanian participants in the PIF, which reached a critical point by 2022. Whereas exclusion from this extremely important regional organization was previously considered highly undesirable and served as effective leverage for traditional donor countries (Australia, New Zealand and the US) on small island states, by 2022 as many as five Oceania countries voluntarily withdrew from the Forum. The fact is that, until recently, the rotation for the post of Secretary General of the PIF took place in accordance with a “gentleman’s agreement” among the countries of Micronesia (which is under American influence), Melanesia (where Australia plays the first fiddle and China have a particularly strong influence) and Polynesia (shared by Australia, France and New Zealand). The tenure in the main PIF position ranges from one to six years. In 2021 it was a Micronesia representative’s turn to take up a key post in the organization, but instead there was a Polynesia representative elected as Secretary General. It was former prime minister of pro-New Zealand Cook Islands Henry Puna, and his predecessor was also a Polynesian. That is the reason why all 5 Micronesia countries have decided to terminate their membership in the PIF. A year later, in 2022, two states, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, returned to the Forum, but two others, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, did not attend. In the case of Kiribati, however, wicked rumors attributed the decision to the influence of Chinese diplomacy, as the country is one of China’s main debtors and a major contender for a security treaty with the PRC, following the example of the Solomon Islands.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made his grand Pacific tour in early June 2022 to conclude a comprehensive trade and security communique with 10 countries of Oceania, whose high representatives were to meet in Fiji those days. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong immediately followed his trail and successfully foiled Wang Yi’s plans.
This intensification of the great geopolitical game of world powers in the Pacific is increasingly divisive in the once cohesive community of Oceanians. In order to mitigate the contradictions and return to the roots of the “pacific” regional policy that the PIF is actually about, it was decided in July 2022 not to invite the Forum’s dialogue partners, China and the US above all.
However, the meeting of Oceanian leaders at the 51st Forum, held in mid-July 2022 in Fiji, was overshadowed not only by the refusal of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands to attend this crucial annual meeting, but also by China’s attempt to violate its ban on participation. A Chinese military attaché and his deputy from the Chinese embassy in Fiji infiltrated the PIF Fisheries Agency meeting disguised as journalists, during which they managed to hear US Vice President Kamala Harris speaking via video call. In her report she touched upon the topic of undesirable increase of Chinese influence in Oceania. Two Chinese “spies” were exposed by one of the journalists present in the room, and the intruders were escorted out by Fijian police officers.
It wasn’t the first trouble in the Forum involving China. In 2018 in Nauru, a representative of the Chinese delegation wished to break protocol and deliver a speech before the more senior Oceanian statesmen. After receiving the rejection, the Chinese delegation defiantly left the meeting. The event provoked strong reactions around the world and sparked a series of debates.
The geopolitically “hot” summer went on with a visit from August 3 to 9, 2022, by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who traveled Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon islands, as well as Samoa and Tonga, which are also candidates for hosting Chinese military bases being heavily indebted to China. The tour took place despite the fact that PIF participants unequivocally expressed to the dialogue partners their desire to remain within the framework of traditional cooperation exclusively with Australia and New Zealand, whose leaders came to the Forum in person in July 2022.
Thus, the “Pacific Way” may soon become a “roaring highway,” with the voices of small island states of Oceania being hardly visible and audible among the loud and aggressive actors, China and the US.
Sofia Pale, PhD in History, researcher with the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.