The hierarchy of threats, risks and challenges in the South Pacific
30 Mar 2020|

Rank the threats, risks and challenges the South Pacific faces.

What’s most significant? What matters most in the lives of islanders?

Putting things in order of importance appeals to the orderly minds of public servants and the ordering minds of politicians. Journalists have always loved lists (even before clickbaiting became an art form). Ranking must look beyond headlines to define what really matters.

Using headlines, Canberra puts the China challenge on top. Certainly, the South Pacific is passionate about climate change. Both are in the top five, but neither is on top, in my list of the biggest threats, risks and challenges for the South Pacific:

1. Human security and state security

2. Climate change

3. Natural disasters

4. Natural resources

5. China

So, in reverse order …

5. China: Canberra judges that China wants to become the dominant strategic power in the islands, with military reach and bases to match. As I put it in 2018: ‘Australia today sees its strategic interests in the South Pacific directly challenged by China.’

Not since World War II and the Cold War have the islands been so strategically relevant—and that’s a view from the Pacific Islands Forum.

The region is waking to the China challenge. It’s manageable. It has to be, because China offers plenty of upside, as the Australian economy attests. China has economic reach but little soft power.

Canberra worries about China’s ability to buy island elites. As the switch of diplomatic recognition by Solomon Islands shows, Beijing can buy a government, but it’s harder to buy a people and a country.

Australia needs to have confidence in our shared history with the South Pacific—the breadth, the depth and the intricate, strong linkages. The islands know how to bargain; they’ve been dealing with the arrival of big powers for 250 years. China is being judged on its performance and it’s not winning everything.

4. Natural resources: A set of assets with lots of risks attached. The islands strive to protect and use their fishery resources. Today, tuna rates as a relative success story, while the tropical forests are a tragedy.

The dwindling, ravaged forests of Melanesia show what happens when extraction becomes exploitation, flavoured by corruption. Logging has been unsustainable and often illegal. Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are the biggest sources of tropical logs for China. Global Witness says log exports from the Solomons are more than 19 times a conservative estimate of the annual sustainable harvest.

Individual nations have done poorly on logging, compared to the collective action of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, which works to manage, monitor and control the distant-water fleets from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Logging and fisheries offer lessons and cautions as the islands consider future prospects for exploiting seabed resources.

3. Natural disasters: The peoples of the South Pacific inhabit an environment that’s as harsh as it is beautiful. Island countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to natural disasters.

The 2019 World Risk Index lists four Pacific island countries among the top 10 most at-risk countries, with Vanuatu ranked first, Tonga third, Solomon Islands fourth, and Papua New Guinea sixth.

In addition to the force of nature, the index assesses government and society and the ability to respond to emergency: ‘The more fragile the infrastructure network, the greater the extent of extreme poverty and inequality and the worse the access to the public health system, the more susceptible a society is to natural events.’

2. Climate change: A huge threat, but a powerful unifier—something island leaders and their nations can all agree on.

The South Pacific has securitised climate change as its top security threat. In the words of the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2018 Boe declaration: ‘We reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement.’

The forum’s declaration last year was even louder on the threat to the survival of the Blue Pacific:

Right now, climate change and disasters are impacting all our countries. Our seas are rising, oceans are warming, and extreme events such as cyclones and typhoons, flooding, drought and king tides are frequently more intense, inflicting damage and destruction to our communities and ecosystems and putting the health of our peoples at risk.

Accepting the force of those statements, how is this only at number 2? The answer is to see the hierarchy in terms of power and responsibility.

Island leaders can unite and campaign on climate change because, as an old pop song puts it, they’re Not responsible.

Island leaders certainly aren’t responsible for global warming. Talking about the danger unites nations and puts leaders on the diplomatic offensive. Yet it’s a way for leaders not to talk about their core responsibility to deal with the greatest challenge facing the islands—the needs of their own people.

The ordering offered by the forum’s Boe declaration has a big ‘not responsible’ flavour. The first two points of the declaration are about climate change and the dynamic geopolitics of ‘an increasingly crowded and complex region’.

The third point in the Boe document is where the leaders step forward to claim ‘stewardship’ of the Blue Pacific. Not until point 7 of the declaration does an expanded concept of security arrive. Even then, human security is discussed in terms of outside ‘humanitarian assistance, to protect the rights, health and prosperity of Pacific people’. It’s an indirect way to discuss the biggest threat, which is also the major responsibility.

1. Human security and state security: In all its forms—social, health, economic and political—the security of the islands and their peoples is merging into traditional security threats.

The islands are strong societies with weak governments. The societies stretch and strain while the governments get no stronger.

The traditional stabilisers of village, clan and religion are shaken. The challenges of modernisation come from outside and inside.

It’s flip, but more than alliteration, to say South Pacific cities are as challenged by sewerage as they are by sea level. The ocean tide coming in matches the tide of those leaving the villages for Pacific towns and cities. The islands grapple with urbanisation.

Health problems abound. Colin Tukuitonga—a doctor from Nuie who was head of the Pacific Community from 2014 until recently—says the climate crisis is matched by the health crisis:

Noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease cause three out of four deaths in the Pacific. These conditions are fuelled by a pipeline of risk factors such as high levels of smoking, unhealthy diets and reduced levels of physical activity. These conditions cause considerable personal costs such as blindness and kidney and heart failure.

In the South Pacific country most important to Australia, Papua New Guinea, Covid-19 adds to PNG’s economic, fiscal and social crisis.

The islands have the youth bulge that brings revolutions. Australia worries quietly about a breakdown of state legitimacy and capacity among the neighbours.

Thinking about likely flashpoints in the manner of the Oz military, John Blaxland offers a crisis scorecard for the coming decade, with 10 being the highest probability. Bougainville’s quest for independence from PNG is an 8. The prospect of a breakdown in law and order in the island arc, as happened in Timor-Leste and Tonga in 2006, and repeatedly in Solomon Islands in the last two decades, is also an 8.

The threat hierarchy lines up the problems and then poses stark questions about need and responsibility.