US moving with the currents as new waves hit the Pacific

27 August 2012


Changing power structures and diplomacy in the South Pacific could provide a model on the future of the United States–China relationship in the Asia Pacific, argues JOANNE WALLIS.

My ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre colleague Professor Hugh White’s new book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, has added fuel to an already fiery debate concerning how the United States and China could navigate the Asia-Pacific’s changing power structure, and what their choices may mean for Australia. United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s decision to attend the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands this week suggests that the South Pacific is of increasing strategic importance in the broader region. Indeed, the South Pacific may constitute a microcosm of how the relationship between the two powers could develop in the future.

China has been active in the South Pacific for four decades, mostly driven by its competition with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition. This competition sees China and Taiwan engage in ‘chequebook diplomacy’ to win the favour of South Pacific states, and has resulted in China becoming the second-largest aid donor in the region, behind Australia. China has also invested heavily in diplomacy, and now has the highest number of diplomats in the region. High-level Chinese officials have undertaken a number of visits to the region, which have been reciprocated by South Pacific politicians and officials. China has also used tools like language training, student exchanges and tourism to build links. It also seized the opportunity created by Australia and New Zealand’s attempts to isolate the military regime in Fiji (including its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum), by building links with the Melanesian Spearhead Group, in which Fiji is an active member.

Clinton’s decision to attend the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, the first visit by such a high-ranking United States official, highlights the United States’ increasingly sensitivity to growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific. Indeed, the United States resumed a more active role in the region. High-level United States officials recently toured the region, the United States has bolstered its diplomatic presence, reopened aid and trade missions (most notably in Fiji), and increased its foreign aid.

The South Pacific may constitute a microcosm of broader emerging strategic rivalry between the United States and China. Given that the region is Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, Australia faces the prospect of attempting to balance the interests of, and its relationship with, the two powers. Whether that balance is struck will have important strategic consequences for Australia, and potentially for the broader Asia-Pacific region.

Pessimistic analyses would predict that China on the one hand, and the United States (and its ally Australia) on the other, will engage in a zero sum competition for influence in the region, as occurred between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. This competition could come to a head if there is a clash between China’s increased military presence in the region and the United States’ military presence in Micronesia, particularly its base on Guam. If such a conflict broke out, Australia would have little option but to respond, and in so doing, inevitably make a choice between the two powers.

However, there may be room for optimism. Australia could try to draw China into a more cooperative approach to development and security in the region, particularly by working through regional multilateral institutions. Australia could also encourage China to carry out joint projects with it, the United States and other Western powers, to ensure the effectiveness and coordination of aid. Although China has been reluctant to engage cooperatively to date, it has shown a greater willingness to coordinate, or at least communicate better, with other donors.

Evidence of emerging communication between China, Australia and other powers in the South Pacific may suggest that proposals for the United States engage and cooperate with China, perhaps along the ‘concert of powers’ model envisaged by White, could succeed in the future. These proposals could be developed on a relatively small and low-risk scale in the South Pacific, and the lessons learnt, and confidence gained, may benefit broader Asia-Pacific stability and security

Dr Joanne Wallis is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, where she also convenes the Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Security program.

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