07.03.2023 Author: Sofia Pale

“Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP)”: Who are they and what their goals are?

In early February 2023, Washington unveiled the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The document repeatedly emphasized the importance of the informal group “Partners in the Blue Pacific” (PBP), established in September 2022 and composed of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom. The purpose of the PBP is to strengthen relations with the 12 small island states located in the South Pacific region “for their prosperity and maritime security.” In this regard, the appointment of Frankie Annette Reed (US Consul General in Melbourne, Australia) as the first American envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, an important regional intergovernmental organization founded in 1971 where the heads of South Pacific nations meet annually, was highlighted. The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy includes the possibility of recognizing two New Zealand possessions, the Cook Islands (population 15 thousand) and Niue (population just under 2 thousand people), as sovereign states after appropriate consultations.

Such unprecedented American interest in the lives of small island states remote from the world centers of civilization can be explained by the fact that in the 2020s the issue of growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific region, which violates the geopolitical interests of the dominant regional players – Australia and the United States. And who will be favored by the South Pacific small island nations will determine who will be the master of the Pacific in the coming years: The US or China.

China’s Belt and Road trade and economic initiative, in which New Zealand and eight small island states, all of which are located close to Australian shores, have signed participation agreements since 2017, is aimed at more than just improving maritime logistics. However, the placement of Chinese military bases and intelligence equipment in countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative over time will pose a serious threat to regional security. So decided Washington, Canberra and London, creating in September 2021 the Anglo-Saxon defense alliance AUKUS for “friendship against” China in the Pacific.

As part of AUKUS, the US committed to assisting Australia in improving its defense capabilities by providing nuclear-powered boats to the Australian Navy beginning in 2023. Australia then breached a contract with France to build non-nuclear submarines, prompting Paris to threaten to sever diplomatic relations with Canberra. When Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, took office in May 2022 and paid an official visit to Paris, the conflict was resolved.

Important events in the world occurred shortly after the establishment of AUKUS. Russian SMO began in Ukraine in February 2022, the Solomon Islands signed a 5-year framework security agreement with China in April (a blow to Australian defense), and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured the eight South Pacific “Belt and Road” island countries in May and June to sign a comprehensive security communiqué with them (which Australian diplomacy did not allow). Given the new circumstances, Washington announced the formation of a new association, the aforementioned informal PBP group, on June 24, 2022, with the goal of strengthening ties with small island states in the South Pacific. It was tacitly intended to make the pro-Western PBP an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road, and thus reduce China’s influence in the South Pacific region.

In addition to the US, Australia and Britain (members of the close Anglo-Saxon clique AUKUS), the PBP included two other members – New Zealand, as Australia’s trusted ally on regional issues, and pro-American Japan, which has an active regional policy to secure its maritime borders. France and the EU have been invited to participate as dialogue partners in the PBP. India was granted observer status in the PBP as a member of the QUAD alliance (along with the United States, Australia, and Japan), despite the fact that it has little interest in the fate of the South Pacific small island states and does not take firm positions on global issues.

However, critical events continued to accumulate: in July 2022, the South Pacific small island states barred the US, China, and nearly all of the 21 dialogue partners from participating in the 51st Pacific Islands Forum; in August, the Taiwan crisis became extremely acute; and in October-November, North Korean military rhetoric became significantly more aggressive. This compelled PBP participants to reconsider the new challenges and offer observer status to pro-American partners who accepted the invitation, including South Korea, Canada, and Germany.

In order to increase American influence in the South Pacific, the White House sent high-level representatives on tours of small island nations throughout 2022, and in September 2022, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken attended the first-ever US-Oceania Summit in Washington, D.C. “The Pacific Islands are critical in shaping the future,” said President Joe Biden at the event. — “America’s, and indeed the world’s, security is dependent on the security of the Pacific Islands,” he said. However, no strategic documents were signed with South Pacific small island states following the summit.

Telecommunications cables carrying sensitive information run along the Pacific Ocean’s bottom, and the nuclear fleets of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States sail in this area. One of the reasons the US seeks to control the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean between the shores of Latin America and Australia is that the logistics routes here provide the world’s largest drug trafficking (for example, Fiji is the largest drug hub in the Southern Hemisphere), illegal trafficking in weapons, people, rare animals, and so on. The task of pro-Western states is to keep legal and illegal Pacific trade logistics under their control, while excluding China as much as possible.

Beijing, for its part, has described the PBP as a “expanded AUKUS alliance” whose primary goal is to counter the expansion of Chinese influence in the South Pacific, rather than the prosperity of small island states.

As a result of the PBP’s activities, the South Pacific’s small island states will now conduct their regional affairs within the Pacific Islands Forum, free of the distractions of big politics. While the large and economically powerful PBP member states – the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Japan, their dialogue partners – France and the EU, and observers – South Korea, Canada, and Germany will be able to fully immerse themselves in the ocean of world politics, defense, and logistics, allocating $US2.1 billion annually in development assistance for its Pacific strategic maneuvers to small island states willing to reconsider their relationship.

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.