Dr Alexander Gillespie is a professor of international law at the University of Waikato.
It is rare that a cyclone in the Pacific is good news, but the one that destroyed three German and three American military sloops in Apia harbour on March 15, 1889 helped avert a major clash of superpowers. Although the outcome did not end up good for the Indigenous people of Samoa as their territory was ultimately divided between Germany and the United States, the superpowers, who were backing different local groups, did not end up fighting each other. Now, after Two World Wars, decades of colonialism, independence and invisibility, the Pacific is back in the global spot light.
The Poor and the Very Poor
Despite the richness of their cultures, the pride of their people and their strong potential, things have not always gone well for all of the Pacific Island countries. Of the 46 nations in the world which are in the UN’s “least developed countries” (the poorest of the poor) category, four are in the Pacific region (Timor-Leste, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu), with two others (Samoa and Vanuatu) are just above the threshold. Many of these states are struggling to swim against the tides of climate change, negative migration patterns and fragile economies. Of the nine Pacific Island Countries (Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu) recently reviewed by the World Bank, six were deemed to be at a high risk of debt distress while Vanuatu was rated at medium risk. Only Palau and Nauru’s debt levels were rated as sustainable.
The Wake-Up Moment
Although China had been building its diplomatic profile in the Pacific since the mid 1970s, when news broke that it has struck a somewhat secretive security pact with the Solomon Islands, many were shocked. Their Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted the agreement would “beef up” the police’s ability to respond to crises such as the recent riots that killed four people and destroyed much of the capital. This has subsequently been supplemented with more cooperation on policing and even greater financial assistance. At the recent United Nations General Assembly gathering, Sogavare spoke positively of ‘South-South’ [Chinese assistance] development cooperation as ‘less restrictive, more responsive and aligned to our national needs’. To such thinking, China is an attractive benefactor. It has no colonial baggage in the Pacific and is a developing country itself. It has made impressive leaps in development and poverty reduction, while its Belt and Road Initiative has deepened trade, investment and infrastructure development, in many parts of the world.
The Diplomatic Dance
This situation has caused a fast-paced diplomatic dance to occur, as Pacific leaders have been romanced by both China and the United States. In addition to renewed interest by both Australia and New Zealand, not one, but two, highest level summits with Pacific Island leaders have been held at the White House. Delux bilateral invitations and visits to Beijing have also occurred. Diplomatic missions, embassies and official recognitions are proliferating with speed, as empty or neglected locations get upgrades. High level visits from many countries have swept through the region, signing deals and filling the air with promises of all sorts of new types of amplified assistance.
Win-win: Better Aid, Less Debt
Assistance, grants or aid is money which is where financial resources are provided either interest free and with no provision for repayment, or the repayment obligations are significantly below commercial rates. This may be delivered either bilaterally or multilaterally. Alternately, money may loans may be provided, which are more commercial in focus and must be repaid. In the Pacific, although assistance is still the dominant source of external income, loans are growing quickly. In 2020, of the 4.2 billion of financial flow that arrived in the Pacific, 2.2 was from grants or aid and nearly 2 billion was not. Of the aid, since 2008, over 50 billion USD has been pledged, providing close to 57,000 projects in 14 countries supplied by 67 donors. Over time, the top three grantors are Australia, the United States and New Zealand. In recent times, other countries, including China, are also making significant contributions. Although the amounts given are no-where near the 0.7% of gross national income on development assistance recommended by the United Nations given by developed countries (New Zealand has fallen to 0.23%, Australia to 0.19 % while the United States had increased to 0.22%) the amounts are still significant.
There is a potential for a win-win scenario if three things occur. First, all countries should aim to increase their foreign assistance. Second, aid should be coordinated, aligned, consistent, accountable, transparent and directly tied to multilateral goals and tools, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Green Climate Fund and linked to bodies such as the Pacific Islands Forum. Third, debt and loans should be avoided. For over 150 years, countries which have fallen into unsustainable debt have proven themselves vulnerable to internal turmoil due to difficult choices that sometimes have to be made and undue external influence, if not intervention. Where debt is sometimes necessary, the emphasis should be on multilateral, not bilateral, institutions and it should be linked to transparent objectives. There is a strong case to be made for the development of a new regional bank, externally supported and focused on the South Pacific.
Lose-Lose: The Militarisation of the Pacific
There is a potential for a lose-lose scenario, taking the Pacific back to the type of tensions that occurred in 1889. While it is essential that there be improved policing, maritime and border security in the Pacific, support for these initiatives should be multinational, and again, filtered through the Pacific Islands Forum. In times of urgency, peacekeeping and help should be collective, not bilateral. Unfortunately, this is not the trend. In addition to increased efforts from Australia and New Zealand, both the United States and China are enhancing and deepening security cooperation in the region. With the former, new arrangements, not without domestic disquiet, have been struck with both Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu (with Australia). China too has been busy. in addition to their connections to the Solomons, Timor Leste recently agreed with Beijing to enhance high-level military exchanges, strengthen cooperation in areas such as personnel training, equipment technology, [and] the conduct of joint exercises and training. While these all sound neutral, each presents a clear risks. Whether these are foundations being laid for permanent military presences, wargames or armed foreign benefactors coming to restore order, bilaterally, in the civil disquiet or disputed elections as the outsiders support one side or another, the omens are bad. Very bad. If this occurs, next time, a cyclone may not stop the possible collision.