Professor Steven Ratuva, a political sociologist, is Director of Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies and Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Canterbury.
It’s not often that a conference brings together the ambassadors of China, the European Union, and the United States to discuss geopolitical interest in the Pacific. This is a major question for the Pacific Island people themselves: how are these great powers thinking about us, and what kind of leverage are they using as a means of winning loyalty? I will examine this same question from the perspective of Pacific Island agency, as it is important to understand where that agency now fits into great power dynamics.
What's happening now is nothing new. Looking at the historical development of geopolitics in the Pacific since the end of the Second World War, we can identify four overlapping phases. The first phase from World War 11 to the 1990s was the Cold War contestation between the Soviet Union and the United States. This was also a period of decolonization as well as nuclear colonialism in the Pacific. In response to nuclear testing the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty was signed by the island countries in the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand. The second broad period started around 9/11 in the 2000s with the War on Terror scenario following the Cold War, where the security framing of the Pacific, particularly by Australia and the United States was geared towards potential Islamist terrorism in this part of the world.
Phase three around the 2010s and 2020s is centered on the emergence of China as a power in this part of the world, and of course, the West’s response and the contestation between the two major blocks. The geopolitical contestation in the Pacific reached a new level of complexity. The two major competing camps included China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US pivot to Asia Pacific under the Obama administration. Part of response to China was Australia’s “Step-up” policy (and later shift to Vuvale) as well as New Zealand’s “Reset” Pacific approach. The United Kingdom joined the fray with it’s “Uuplift” policy. Around the same time, some Pacific countries such as Fiji developed the , Look North policy, as a way of enlarging their circle of international engagement. Phase four refers to the Indo-Pacific dynamics which is really an extension of phase 3 and a shift from the concept of Asia-Pacific.
Now, what about Pacific agency? The Pacific Island States are left wondering what's happening here. So in the last few months, the Pacific Island leaders have been asking, ‘What’s in it for us in relation to security?’
There have been a lot of shifts in the geopolitical areas of contestation among different players with regards to the Indo-Pacific. The two most important are the Quad (consisting of Japan, India, the United States, and Australia) and AUKUS (the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States).
Listening to the speakers today, I can see some commonalities in terms of the language used in the narratives of security. In the case of China, the central features of the strategies articulated are equality, openness and cooperation. In the case of the United States, they are openness, freedom, prosperity, and security. And in the case of the European Union, they are openness and fairness.
But what precisely do those terms mean? For instance, when all three of these great powers talk about openness, what exactly do they mean? Despite the commonality of language, there may be competing political and ideological meanings.
We have to ask, from the point of view of Pacific Island agency, what does openness, as preached by the external powers, mean? Does it mean opening up the Pacific to anyone who passes by and imposes their own security agenda? Or is it based on the idea of allowing the Pacific to be a place of peaceful engagement, of open engagement between the external powers and the Pacific Island states?
In 2010-11, Mrs. Clinton, who was then the US Secretary of State, visited the Pacific and talked about the Pacific being big enough for everybody. China concurred with this. When you read Mrs Clinton’s speech and the speech from the Minister of Foreign Affairs in China, it is as if the same speech writer wrote the two speeches.
But, from the point of view of the Pacific Island States, what does being ‘big enough for everybody’ mean in terms of their sovereignty? What does it mean in terms of their security? What does it mean in terms of their development agenda?
Often, when we talk about the Pacific we assume homogeneity when, in fact, the Pacific is complex . And if you go beyond just the Pacific Island Forum boundary, then the area covered and the complexity of the components is vast.
We can look at the Pacific in terms of three layers.
One is the Island States themselves, which have a long history of connections — both in terms of culture, and in terms of genealogical connections that have existed for thousands of years and extend as far as the Māori in Aotearoa. In fact, they're Big Ocean States, not Small Island States as often stated. This framing, based on their ocean size and significance is important for defining the extent of their sovereignty, autonomy and determining the trajectory of their development into the future.
Then there is the second layer, which consists of New Zealand and Australia. They are part of the Pacific as well as regional neo-colonial powers. They are also economically large and politically powerful countries. While they are part of the Pacific Island Forum, they are also donors and they have strong links with other external big powers. In the case of Australia, for instance, it is part of the Indo-Pacific alliances in the form of QUAD and AUKUS.
And the third layer consists of the external powers like China and the United States, which are competing for regional hegemony.
Of course, all of these three layers are interconnected in various ways. But what distinguishes the different layers are the different security-interests and security-understanding of the world. To the first layer, the Pacific Island Big Ocean States, their most immediate security consideration is climate change. Many of the islands are being impacted by warming of sea, erosion, cyclones and other climate-related hazards.
And this is where things become very interesting in terms of the gap between the Big Ocean States (first layer) and the big powers (second and third layers). The Big Ocean States are seen as potential supporters through provision of aid, diplomatic engagement and other soft power means. The Chinese have been giving aid for a number of years. In fact, almost every public building all around the Pacific has been donated by China — although, as Gerry Brownlee points out, a lot of these buildings have disintegrated as a result of the rather poor quality of construction, and a lot of money is being spent trying to repair them. Australia and New Zealand also give aid. Indeed, aid into the Pacific has increased tremendously over the past fifty years, but so have levels of poverty, while health conditions have worsened. There's no direct correlation between the amount of aid which is given and the improvement of people's well-being.
There are various reasons for this. One that much of the money given is in the form of what has been referred to as ‘boomerang aid’ that finds its way back to the donor countries — either into the pockets of contractors from countries such as China, Australia or New Zealand, or in the form of repayments of soft loans to institutions such as EXIM Bank. Another is that a lot of the aid is wrapped up in geopolitical dressing. And that makes it much less transparent and subtly manipulative.
So in terms of the developmental aspects of relationship between the big powers and Big Ocean States, the transformative result on the ground is vastly different from the political rhetoric. While the political and diplomatic narratives talk about collaboration and development, the reality on the ground leaves a lot to be desired.
Let me also connect this to the 2050 Blue Pacific strategy. The 2050 Blue Pacific strategy was put together as a way of affirming the future vision of the Pacific people in relation to such things as development, governance, education, research, technology, resilience, well-being and partnership. But what has happened in the last couple of years and months is that this document has been used by the great powers, both the US and China, as a way of justifying their self-perceived role as funders for the future, with significant potential effects on the sovereignty, the agency and autonomy of the Pacific.
This gap between the geopolitical and strategic narratives, and the application on the ground, inevitably affects how Pacific island states will interpret the actions of the great powers.
The last point I want to raise here is to do with working together.
Both the Chinese Ambassador and the American Ambassador talk about the potential for working together. But the reality is that there is also competition — both economic and political. This competition can lead to tension which could have unforeseen negative implications for the Pacific in the future, potentially aggravating some of the human security issues faced by the Pacific Island States every day.
This is something that we have to be worried about. It is also an opportunity for the European Union to be an active actor in the Pacific: as a referee between the United States and China, as a provider of space for commonality. And that's precisely what the Pacific needs moving forward — not competition, the consequences of which can be destructive, but rather cooperation, which can be for the benefit of everyone. In particular, cooperation can benefit the Big Ocean States, whose security interests are not so much to do with geopolitics, but rather to do with issues of development, issues of poverty, of well-being, of health, of education, and of course, the climate crisis. So we need to think about how we can work together in the Pacific to move from competition and contestation into peaceful engagement and cooperation.