Fiji Beach with Coconut Tree - Robert McGregor, Simon Roberts

What Does The Pacific Want?

First, they came to discover and to trade. Then they came to colonise. Then they de-colonised and came to party. Now they come in the name of international security.

In the past few years, we have seen terms such as ‘Pacific Pivot’, ‘Pacific Reset’ and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ presented as other nations’ intent for the South Pacific. The politicians making these strategic references include those from the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and China.

But what do the nations of the Pacific want? Are they happy with security strategy being ‘done for and to them?’ How different would a Pacific security strategy look if it were developed by Pacific nations without the tug of love from larger countries?

A mistake frequently made by commentators in a range of disciplines, from defence to music and sport, is referring to the Pacific island nations as a homogeneous group. They are not. They are a richly diverse group of ethnicities and cultures and fiercely protective of their uniqueness. Even major groupings such as Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian fail to adequately describe the composition of the region. They have expressed their desire for regional unity but successful execution of that ideal is elusive.

Neither is it easy or perhaps even possible to separate the national interests of larger countries from local security needs. A well-traversed example of this is Timor Leste and Australia’s interest in the oil reserves of the Timor Sea. In the late 80s and early 90s, New Zealand, Australia and others cut off a wide range of support to Fiji over military coups. France, who was facing international condemnation for its nuclear tests in French Polynesia, moved quickly to fill the gap with military advice and hardware. In Fiji’s case, this included trucks and helicopters. China, India, Russia and even North Korea have taken advantage of later sanctions toward Fiji to strengthen their relationships. There has been no gain and much lost for Australia and NZ through acting as a ‘tough love’ parent.

It is well past time to reconsider the traditional areas of interest in the Pacific. Does it still make sense for NZ to have special administrative arrangements with Cook Islands, Nuie and Tokelau? Why the arbitrary split of interest with Australia taking the lead in Melanesian countries and NZ in Polynesian ones?

The reality is that the sudden surge in interest in the Pacific is because of China. The increasingly inward focus of the USA is causing problems for Australia’s ‘Deputy Sheriff’ worldview. This has led to a rather bizarre request from Australia to Britain to increase foreign aid spending in the region because its own voters are against spending more. On the back of this is a discussion about sailing the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier ‘Queen Elizabeth’ to the Pacific in a couple of years. What possible use a British carrier battle group with a few RAN vessels and aircraft tacked on could be sailing around the local ocean is a mystery. It’s likely the people of Britain will be more interested in paying the cost of Brexit than a naval adventure down under.

Right now, the people of the Pacific are feeling a whole lot of love – much of it uninvited. I spend a reasonable amount of time there, having served in uniform on secondment to the Republic of Fiji Military Forces in the 80s and coming close to joining that army in the 90s. After Cyclone Winston hit Fiji in February 2016, I travelled there to see how we could help. My company established a support and recovery relationship with a small village and school. Pacific people know that help is cyclic and conditional. What is offered is not always what is wanted or needed but they are proud and polite. There is no way they would say no to something offered. If it’s of no use, it’s just quietly put aside, given away or sold so that actual needs can be met. The work done by the ADF and NZDF after the cyclone was commendable. Nothing much was said about the shiploads of emergency supplies the Chinese and Indians sent but the locals knew. In the devastated areas, blue PRC tents, solar lights and first aid kits were everywhere. At the same time, Russia delivered new firearms, helmets and body armour for the RFMF to improve safety of peacekeepers.

Australia has recently refurbished one of Fiji’s Pacific-Class Patrol boats (which they provide around the Pacific as part of an aid programme). At the same time, HMNZS Taupo is patrolling Fiji’s economic zone (Op Wasawasa) with a handful of Fijian Government personnel on board but intercepting boats while flying a New Zealand White Ensign. New Zealand Army mentors are working at the Peacekeeper Training Centre just outside Nadi. Fiji is no doubt getting benefit from all the attention but, if asked what they really need, would probably say “diesel” so they can operate their own vessels (actually one did say this to me a couple of years ago). There is, now, a whole generation of military officers and government officials who have, since 1987, done their mid-senior officer training and university courses in India and China. They do not identify with Australia and NZ in the way their bosses do. There is no point in trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

The relative strengths of the larger economies and forces in the Pacific is instructive:

Country Population (approx.) GDP (Est) Force Size
Papua New Guinea 8m $29b 2500+
Fiji 885,000 $8.8b 3500 + 6000 Res
Timor Leste 1.2m $4.6b 1330
Tonga 100,000 $763m 500+
Samoa 196,000 $1b 0 (NZ to respond)
Vanuatu 272,000 $773m 240+ Vanuatu Mobile Force (Para-Military) is part of Police


Seen in these terms, the tagline could be “Lose the Melanesian Spearhead Group – Lose the Pacific.” Though much smaller than the Pacific Islands Forum, it is the cluster that represents much of the economic and military power in the region – once Australia and NZ are removed from the table. The 18 countries designated as PIF dialogue partners are the second tier of influence.

Security strategies are built around protecting what we value and I think it time that the Pacific nations were allowed to develop their own ‘Pacific-Centric Strategy.’ In all likelihood, it would engage most of the dialogue partners of the PIF. Does Australia have a big role to play? I think that they would like to but that’s not necessarily what Pacific nations want. Does having 8% of the population identifying as Pacific people entitle NZ to a major role of influence? I’m not so sure that we are always viewed as the close friend and ally that we imagine ourselves to be.

Over time, there have been many ‘bogey men’ in this region. Japan in WWII, Indonesia and now China. All for different reasons but all causing a re-think of international security. A few years ago, the idea of PATO – A Pacific Area Treaty Organisation like NATO – was scoffed at as ‘parallel universe thinking.’ It isn’t anymore. And in developing this sort of strategy, the Pacific nations need to be at the helm.

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