The Partners in the Blue Pacific: A New Alliance in the Region

By Artyom Garin and Radomir Romanov;

On June 24, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Japan announced the creation of a new cooperation format – The Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) – an inclusive and informal mechanism to more effectively and efficiently support the goals of the Pacific region. This format is keeping with the shared vision of the participating countries on the problems of the region.

The new informal alliance demonstrates another strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region of the United States (US) and its allies, and also demonstrates the solidarity of the member-countries around the problem of China’s increasing influence in the region.

There are indications that the rhetoric of the Chinese authorities demonstrates a negative attitude towards any pro-American alliances: Beijing believes that they are aimed at encircling and containing China. According to Beijing, such alliances in the future may lead to the creation of a full-fledged anti-Chinese coalition. From China’s point of view, the US Indo-Pacific strategy, through the creation of exclusive alliances, provokes conflicts and tensions in the region.

According to an official press release from the White House, London, Canberra, Wellington, Washington and Tokyo list the following as the main goals of cooperation:

1. Deliver the goals more effectively and efficiently for the Pacific region

Of special interest will be the attempts by the new format to try in the long run to supplement cooperation in the defense sphere with joint projects in the field of economic and infrastructural development of the Indo-Pacific region, designed to become an alternative to the Chinese initiative “One Belt and  One Road”. Most importantly, another opportunity to export Japanese defense-relevant equipment to the Oceanian markets is being increased.

2. Promote Pacific regionalism

At the same time, the United States views itself as a force multiplier: while stepping up its presence, it also expects that regional players will bear the prime costs of containing China. For the purpose of initiatives that are alternative to Chinese projects, the United States seeks to attract the resources of international financial institutions and that of allied countries, viewing itself as a coordinator of joint efforts.

3. Increase opportunities for cooperation between the Pacific region and the world

One of the interesting areas of this cooperation mechanism is that the US will conduct “educational courses” for potential leaders of the countries of Oceania. This means that representatives of political circles, the media and large businesses who have received highly qualified Western education will be able to promote the Western vector of development and Western values after returning to their native countries.

The Pacific Partnership is another association aimed at coordinating actions in the power struggle against China in the region. The target is the small Pacific island states, which, according to Partners in the Blue Pacific, are under the economic and political influence of Beijing.

In April, China and the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement that raised serious questions about the possibility of establishing a Chinese military base in the South Pacific, close to the US island territory of Guam, Australia and New Zealand. China in the treaty focuses on maintaining public order, disaster relief and combating security challenges.

At the same time, Beijing and Honiara flatly deny this possibility, but they also do not give a substantive answer that would satisfy the United States. In addition, Australia condemned the agreement which allows China to deploy military forces close to Australian borders. However, the Solomon Islands had earlier applied to Australia with a similar request, but was refused due to the inappropriateness of such an offer, given the Australian defense program with Papua New Guinea.

After China pushed for a broad, common pact of cooperation with 10 Pacific states, the planned extent of its growing influence was made clear.

To counter development opportunities provided by China’s BRI, these countries started “The Partners in the Blue Pacific” initiative. Thus, this initiative is a countermeasure against China and an attempt to nullify China’s influence in the South Pacific region.

In addition, Japanese experts note that the importance of the Pacific region is enormous, since the presence of special economic zones (SEZs) have great potential: fishing, energy, the search for minerals and other marine resources.

Many scholars believe that establishing closer ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) carries a potential threat to the sovereignty of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the political decision-making process. Especially if it concerns the island countries of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For example, behind China’s efforts to gain a stronger position, Australia, the United States and a number of other states perceive Beijing’s actions as an effort to conquer a broader geostrategic space in the Indo-Pacific.

The South Pacific combines a number of unique features. First, historically, major powers have been engaged in this subregion. Australia, New Zealand, the USA, France and partly the UK assess the South Pacific primarily from their security point of view. Second, the SIDS have extensive exclusive economic zones (EEZs), potentially large reserves of gold, copper, gas, oil, nickel, cobalt, wood and a beneficial geographical position for international trade.

Despite the fact that Oceania is not in proximity with the potential theater of military operations in the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia or the countries of the Indian Ocean, it still attracts more and more attention from leading regional and extra-regional actors.

If Beijing has been actively working on multi-vector cooperation with the SIDS in recent years and is trying to offer them prospects for long-term socio-economic development, then things are different for Washington. For a long time, the US had no strategy in Oceania.

With the PBP, Washington has decided to intensify its presence in this sub-region of the region. The United States claims that its initiative is based on partnership and cooperation, respect for Pacific agendas, as well as appropriate consultations with Oceanic leaders. The PBP also talks about regionalism, the importance of the Island Countries of the subregion and the central role of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the principles of sovereignty and transparency.

However, in fact, the new “alliance” is not without drawbacks. There is an extremely high risk that its establishment may be negatively perceived in the SIDS themselves. Against the background of China’s strengthening position in the region, it’s obvious that this initiative hides a deeper geostrategic context. The steps taken by the United States and its allies are similar to China’s attempt, criticized in the Australian and American media, to develop a multilateral Common Development concept in cooperation with Oceanic states, but there are a number of differences between them.

For example, five PBP members (USA, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the UK) have practically copied the name and narrative of Oceania’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent in order to promote their interests. Probably, the United States and its partners tried to show that they share the agendas of the SIDS, but this step looks more like a losing one. A contradiction arises because of the establishment of PBP: who is ruling the Blue Pacific agenda after all? The governments and peoples of the island states of the South Pacific or the United States together with its allies?

The “security” perception in Oceania differs in its breadth. Natural disasters caused by climate change are considered the main threat in the subregion. This is at odds with the actions of major Indo-Pacific actors, which pay more attention to the build-up of military-centric vision, the expression of which was the emergence of the AUKUS alliance and the possible appearance of nuclear submarines in Australia.

Countries of Oceania recognized in the Boe Declaration (2018) “an increasingly dynamic geopolitical environment leading to an increasingly crowded and complex region”. However, first of all, they expect assistance in improving the life quality or economic development from leading Indo-Pacific actors, not an appeal to become part of a great and middle power competition for influence in the region.

The foreign policy of the SIDS in the South Pacific is based on the doctrine of “Friends to All, Enemies to None”. In addition, the Secretary General of the PIF, Henry Puna, called on dialogue partners to work with Oceania’s “regional mechanisms”  to achieve “mutually agreed priorities”.

For decades, regionalism in the South Pacific has evolved on the basis of the decolonization process. The purpose of the PIF was to control the situation in the subregion, but PBP has made the geostrategic environment in Oceania more complex and may affect its structure.

Moreover, the parties of PBP didn’t rule out the possible expansion of the “alliance” with “other partners”. To achieve this, they must share the “values and aims” of the Pacific. This also raises the question: who exactly will determine these criteria? If such decisions become the prerogative of larger actors, then Oceania countries risk facing limitation on their sovereignty at different levels. In fact, they will find themselves in a trap set up by leading regional actors competing for influence.

Artyom Garin completed his PhD at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania (Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences). He conducts research in the fields of Indo-Pacific multilateralism and Australia-China relations. His academic interests also include defence and aid policies of Australia, as well as politics, history and strategies of the Pacific Island Countries. He can be contacted at garinartyomalexeevich@gmail.com.

Radomir Romanov is Senior Officer of Asia-Pacific International Institutions and Multilateral Cooperation Studies Center at the Far Eastern Federal University. Romanovfefu@gmail.com

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