Four South Pacific futures
27 Jul 2020|

Geostrategic competition, climate change and Covid-19 push at the South Pacific, heightening the internal challenges of state security and human security.

The South Pacific has weak states and strong societies. As a journalistic recycler, I’ve been using variations of that line about struggling states, vigorous villages and wonderful wontoks since the 1970s. It cycles through my ranking of the hierarchy of threats, risks and challenges for the South Pacific.

Over the 50 years or so since decolonisation, island societies have stretched and strained while their governments haven’t got much stronger. The problems are as well known as they are pressing. That familiarity plays to the habits of our species when peering into the future: tomorrow will be much like today, only more so.

The continuity comfort is an element of Australia’s Pacific ‘step-up’. We’re going to build on our already substantial role to do a lot more of what we’re doing, only better.

The pandemic shakes what’s familiar and our sense of what will come next. The virus is a disruptive twin for the gyrating geopolitics of a shaking global balance and multilateral malaise.

The South Pacific has shut down and so far shut out Covid. But the geopolitical shakes will arrive as inevitably as the next cyclone season. Perhaps the South Pacific’s future is going to look different because the international context is changing so much, even if the local problems are unchanged.

The spark for such thinking is Peter Layton, a grand strategist who has written the book on grand strategy. He offers four scenarios for the future of the South Pacific, three of them marked by regional disruption and disintegration, in his work on Pacific island futures, Australia’s new regional context.

Sustaining the islands as a coherent region working together is going to demand a lot of effort, Layton argues:

The Pacific Island region as it is today may be an historical anomaly contingent on a particular international system, globalisation, favourable international laws of the sea and digital information technology that makes distance at times immaterial. The alternative futures combined with the impact of global warming may have highlighted that this sweet spot may not last.

Layton’s four scenarios use the Australian Defence Department’s crystal-ball effort from 2016 on the military’s future operating environment out to 2035.

I was struck by how much of Defence’s musing about what the islands face could have been written at any time over the past 50 years. The list goes like this:

  • South Pacific states will struggle with weak governance and weak economies, plus a youth bulge with half the region’s population aged under 23.
  • Fragile governments will draw few benefits from the economic centrality of the Asia–Pacific, but they must contend with ‘major power competition or encroachment’.
  • Papua New Guinea will remain prone to outbreaks of violence; most will be localised ‘but their impacts could be severe in major population centres’.
  • Australia will take a leading role to prevent police and security forces from being overwhelmed and will help with evacuations, humanitarian relief and other noncombat tasks. ‘The most demanding operations will involve large populations and large areas of operations … [and] the potential for conflict with military or paramilitary forces.’

The defence planners imagined four alternative future international systems. Peter Layton uses them to offer four scenarios for the South Pacific in 2040.

The multilateral future assumes stronger island governments and a cooperative environment. Globalisation keeps going and the islands retain strategic autonomy (‘we can secure our future for ourselves’). Unexpectedly, global warming is held at 1.5°C. Urban centres are resilient and outer islands are stable.

The networked future sees the region as semi-autonomous (‘we can secure our future if we can turn a good profit’). States, corporations and non-state actors work together in complex business-oriented networks as globalisation deepens. Global warming is held at +1.9°C. Island urban centres grow but outer islands decline.

In the fragmented future, globalisation declines in an era of hard-nosed, zero-sum nationalism. Regionalism becomes strategically irrelevant (‘my island first and foremost’). Global warming is at +1.9°C and worsening. With poor social cohesion, urban centres are unsafe and outer islands are in sharp decline.

The multipolar future is when globalisation splinters and the South Pacific divides between a China-led bloc and US-led bloc. The region has minimal autonomy (‘we do as we are told’). Global warming is at +1.9°C and worsening. Urban centres are unsafe and outer islands are declining.

The four scenarios ask deep questions of island governance. Layton writes that the South Pacific must build connectivity to achieve resilience in the face of global warming and geostrategic change: ‘Such connectivity is not only the physical kind of airfields, ports, roads and information technology but also the intangible people-to-people links. Broad and deep connectivity brings not just physical robustness but also an enduring social cohesion critical to recovery from disastrous events.’

The irony of the connectivity thought is that in the 2040 Layton describes, the islands may be more alone than they are now, and have to rely more on their own resources.

See the shadow of Layton’s scenarios and the bones of earlier Defence thinking in the way the 2020 defence strategic update offers a new framework focused on Australia’s immediate region. With Papua New Guinea and the Southwest Pacific central to that frame, consider this update vision:

State fragility, exacerbated by governance and economic challenges, has the potential to facilitate threats to the region including the spread of terrorism and activities that undermine stability and sovereignty. Increased state fragility could also potentially lead to the [Australian Defence Force] being called on more often for evacuation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and potentially more demanding stabilisation operations. It may also increase threats to Australia’s domestic security including through irregular maritime arrivals.

In that fragile future, the ‘irregular’ arrivals mightn’t be sent by people smugglers. Instead, they’d be neighbours fleeing climate disaster and troubled societies.

The South Pacific sees a lot of history and old problems that get newer every day. Australia seeks to shape a strategic environment that is shape-shifting.