Crowded and complex: the changing geopolitics of the South Pacific
24 Apr 2017|

Australia faces an increasingly crowded and complex geopolitical environment in the South Pacific. While the most important external powers in the region have traditionally been Australia, New Zealand, the US and France, which have long worked together as partners, a number of new powers are increasingly active, most notably China, Russia, Indonesia, Japan and India. South Pacific states, particularly Papua New Guinea and Fiji, are emerging as regional powers to constrain Australian influence. South Pacific states are also becoming more active on the international stage, further taking them outside Australia’s and their other traditional partners’ sphere of influence.

The complex geopolitics of the South Pacific have also generated shifts in the regional order. While the Pacific Islands Forum, of which Australia is a member, remains the pre-eminent regional political and security institution, South Pacific states have been empowered by their greater choice of non-traditional external partners, disenchanted with the Pacific Islands Forum and encouraged by an emboldened Fiji to create or strengthen alternative regional and subregional institutions and organisations that exclude Australia and their other traditional external partners.

Given the proximity and strategic import of the South Pacific, Australia can’t afford to be complacent about these geopolitical challenges and needs to be more aware of and focused on the region. The geopolitical environment in the South Pacific has important implications for us, particularly given our strategic interest in being the region’s ‘principal security partner’ in order to ensure that no power hostile to Western interests establishes a strategic foothold in the region from which it could launch attacks on Australia or threaten allied access or our maritime approaches.

There’s a risk that China’s growing regional activism could generate destabilising competition with the US in the South Pacific, which would have consequences for Australia, both as the region’s near neighbour and because of flow-on effects on its security relationship with the US and economic relationship with China. While that’s unlikely, the perception that external powers are competing for regional influence has opened up global opportunities for South Pacific states, as it has encouraged the belief that they can play competing great powers against each other. Consequently, South Pacific states appreciate that they have more choice as to which external power (or powers) they engage with. Some appear to be taking advantage of this in order to access aid, concessional loans, military support and international influence.

The geopolitical environment in the South Pacific also has implications for Australia’s strategic interest in ensuring stability, security and cohesion in the region. The influx of aid and investment from non-traditional external powers runs the risk of destabilising recipient states. This raises two main challenges for Australia. First, as the region’s principal security partner with a strong sense of responsibility for the region, we’re likely to feel obliged (and be expected by our partners, particularly the US) to respond to serious instability and conflict. Second, the increased presence and activism of non-traditional external powers, particularly China, raises questions about whether they would intervene to protect their interests and investments and, if so, how Australia would respond.

Australians, and particularly the Australian government, need to be more aware of and focused on the South Pacific. Our attention to the region has peaked at moments when the region was perceived to pose an imminent potential threat, such as during the ‘war on terror’, when ‘weak’ states were perceived to be vulnerable to penetration by terrorists or transnational criminals who might have threatened Australia. This motivated us to intervene to attempt to strengthen state institutions in Solomon Islands, PNG and Nauru. Beyond those moments, our foreign and strategic policy in the region has been characterised by unclear, inconsistent and competing interests and intentions, which has reduced its effectiveness and undermined Australia’s influence.

So what should Australia do to ensure that it remains able to pursue its strategic interests? In my report I outline three proposals. First, Australia’s best chance of ensuring that no power hostile to Western interests establishes a strategic foothold in the region, from which it could launch attacks on Australia or threaten allied access or our maritime approaches, is to do more to remain the region’s principal security partner. Second, to ensure that none of the non-traditional external powers active in the South Pacific becomes hostile to Australia’s interests, or more seriously, a source of threat, Australia should try to draw those powers into a more cooperative approach to development and security. Third, Australia should seek to better cooperate with new regional and subregional institutions to ensure that it isn’t marginalised in the changing regional order.

If Australia is going to ensure that it’s able to respond to the complex and crowded geopolitics of the South Pacific, it needs to prioritise the region in a clear, consistent and sustained way in its foreign and strategic policy planning.