What the US expects of Australia in the South Pacific
19 Sep 2022|

Since the modern South Pacific arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States has handed significant regional responsibility to Australia and New Zealand.

America would do the duties of the big external power in Micronesia. Australia and New Zealand would ‘shoulder the main burden’ in Melanesia and Polynesia.

A buffed, burly ex–US Navy officer wily in the ways of Washington expressed the US stance with typical clipped directness: ‘Don’t understand the South Pacific. Happy to leave it to you. Always willing to help.’

The Washington insider was Richard Armitage, who served as an assistant secretary of defence (1981–1989) and deputy secretary of state (2001–2005). My memory of Armitage’s description of the division of responsibilities is anecdotage from the late 1990s. For the formal expression of that division as it was being created, turn to Australian cabinet documents.

In a March 1977 cabinet submission on Australian diplomatic representation in the South Pacific, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock stressed the ‘urgent need for Australia to extend its official presence in the South Pacific’, because of efforts by the Soviet Union and China to increase their roles in the islands.

Peacock wrote that Washington expected Canberra and Wellington to carry the South Pacific load:

In discussions on Soviet and Chinese motives in the region, the United States Government has made it clear that, while it stands ready to play a supporting role, it looks to Australia and New Zealand to shoulder the main burden of ensuring the stability of the region and of developing close relations with the Island countries. The United States also looks to Australia and New Zealand to provide most of the basic reporting and intelligence on the countries of the region.

By 1977, the two decades of decolonisation in Melanesia and Polynesia was nearly complete. Here’s the independence time lime: Western Samoa, 1962; Tonga, 1970; Fiji, 1970; Papua New Guinea, 1975; Solomon Islands, 1978; Kiribati, 1979; and Vanuatu, 1980.

The new South Pacific was born.

Gough Whitlam’s Labor government (1972–1975) and Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government (1975–1983) responded in the ways that still drive much of what Australia does in the islands.

Whitlam and Fraser worked to remake Australia’s role while holding to a fundamental tenet of the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia: we must be the chief power in the South Pacific, a foreign policy and strategic imperative specified by the constitution in 1901.

Earlier prime ministers—Alfred Deakin, Billy Hughes, John Curtin—talked of empire and later of trust territories. Whitlam and Fraser had to find ways for Australia to be the key partner for newly independent neighbours.

In creating that role in the 1970s, Canberra was also rethinking the Australia–US alliance following Vietnam, in the ‘aftermath of America’s greatest defeat in war in 160 years’ (a line from another wily Washington player, Robert Gates).

America expected allies to do more of the strategic and diplomatic lifting.

Peacock repeated the message of South Pacific responsibility—and the complications involved—in a cabinet submission on US relations in December 1978:

The Americans have looked to Australia and New Zealand to take the lead in the South Pacific, but have accepted Australian encouragement to take a more active role in the region. In view of Island sensitivities, Australia will need to exercise care in interposing itself between South Pacific countries and the US.

Under Fraser, Australia doubled its aid to the South Pacific and set up new diplomatic missions. Leaving aside aid pledged to Papua New Guinea, 1978 was the year that Australia gave more aid to the islands than New Zealand did. And so it has continued. Australia wants to be the top aid giver in the islands.

As for Peacock’s line about encouraging the US ‘to take a more active role in the region’, that’s been an occasional effort that never really shifted the fundamental settings. Until now.

The effect of the division of responsibilities over the five decades was most evident in the diplomatic, political and intelligence realms. A negative read would be that Washington went absent in Melanesia and Polynesia. A kinder version is that Washington had more important tasks everywhere else in the world, and had confidence in Australia and New Zealand to serve their own interests and their own region.

On defence and strategy, the South Pacific gets plenty of attention from Hawaii, from the US Pacific Command, which in 2018 was renamed Indo-Pacific Command.

The jest used to be that in the old title of the US Commander in Chief Pacific—CINCPAC—the first ‘C’ stood for Caesar. This Caesar was a military tribune with more power than many of the prime ministers and presidents he treated with. Thus, Washington was relying on its tribune as well as its allies.

Yet even the tribune in Hawaii shares some of the Washington problem when it comes to Polynesia and Melanesia. With responsibility for more than half of the earth’s surface, Indo-Pacific Command has a lot of forces in a lot of places, but not many in the South Pacific.

The strategic division established in the 1970s has run its course. Both Canberra and Washington agree: the US has to get back in the game in the South Pacific, because China has changed the game. What holds for the broader Indo-Pacific is now true for the South Pacific.

Australia expends much money and might to prevent a Chinese ‘strategic surprise’ in the islands. That’s the phrase used by the US Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, speaking in January at the launch of an Australia chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Campbell said the US had to lift its game in the South Pacific, to match what’s done by Australia and New Zealand: ‘But that’s an area that we need much stronger commitment. And I’m, frankly, looking to Australia as the lead here. And we, as the United States, have to be a better deputy sheriff to them in this overall effort.’

The US as Australia’s ‘deputy sheriff’ shows Campbell’s dry humour, his understanding of the way roles have long been allocated, and his memory of the trouble former prime minister John Howard had with the ‘deputy sheriff’ badge.

The US understanding of what Australia can deliver in the South Pacific has changed and that means the US role must change.