Australia and New Zealand are set to sign a new security pact with the Pacific Island nations in attempts to curb Chinese influence in the region.
Australia is a sovereign country comprising of the Australian mainland, the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands. It is the largest country in the Oceania region and the world’s sixth-largest by area. The Pacific Islands are the islands of the Pacific Ocean consisting of eleven island countries – Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. These countries have a combined population of 2.3 million people, spread across a unique and diverse region made up of hundreds of islands, and scattered over an area equivalent to 15% of the globe’s surface.
Pacific Island countries are some of the most vulnerable in the world, to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. According to a World Risk Report, five Pacific countries are among the top 20 in the world with the highest average annual disaster losses. As small and remote islands, they share similar challenges such as limited natural resources, narrowly-based economies, large distances away from major markets, and vulnerable to external shocks. These factors affect economic growth and lead to high degrees of instability.
Australia is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, an inter-governmental organization that aims to enhance cooperation between the independent countries of the Pacific Ocean. Australia has been the dominant power in the Pacific Islands region for at least three decades via geography, trade and investment, aid, tourism and defense. The region has attracted the interest of major powers, and as a result the power dynamics of the region are changing. USA and France hold territories in the Pacific Ocean, and Japan, China and Taiwan have been on the scene for many years.
Australia and New Zealand will sign a security deal covering defense, law and order, foreign aid and disaster relief at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru in September this year. International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells stated that the deal would “provide a framework for responding to emerging threats" and comes amidst increasing Chinese efforts to exercise financial influence in the region. The new pact will serve as an update to Australia’s existing agreement with its Pacific neighbors. The Biketawa Declaration from the year 2000 created a structure for collective responses to regional crises, such as regional peacekeeping and stabilization operations in Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tonga. Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said, “Obviously China is reaching out across the world, including into our region, and we have a very good relationship with China. We want all of that to continue, but we have a responsibility to work with our neighbours and we're doing that."
China has been increasingly active and assertive in the region as well as in Asia. As a reflection of the country’s mounting ambitions and economic strength, China has been modernizing its military and increasing its capabilities. It has also emerged as a key donor, especially in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Consequently, many Pacific Island nations find themselves in positions of vulnerability as the acceptance of foreign loans can lead to debt obligations.
Earlier this year, New Zealand significantly boosted the amount of aid money it spends in the Pacific by an additional $500 million over the next four years. In June 2018, Australia had negotiated a security treaty with Vanuatu after reports emerged of China’s desire to build a permanent military base in the country. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had stated that the country would “view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours.” They also feel that Chinese aid programs were creating trouble and threatening economic stability without delivering any benefits. Both Australia and New Zealand have a strong position regarding the militarization of the region.
Our assessment is that the new agreement might not reduce the expanding interests of the Chinese in the Pacific Island region. We believe that China’s distinctly different approach to regional engagement will pose a challenge to traditional partners like Australia and New Zealand. We feel that Australia needs to take up a strong leadership position to assure its long-term presence.
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