Pacific Islands

Does AUKUS undermine Australia’s position in the Pacific?

November 6, 2023 1:42 pm

The Pacific Islands Forum has convened in the Cook Islands for its 52nd annual meeting. [Source: Pacific Islands Forum/Facebook]

As Pacific leaders meet in the Cook Islands, is Australia’s double game with AUKUS harming its local relationships?

The Pacific Islands Forum has convened in the Cook Islands for its 52nd annual meeting.

This year’s Forum organises around the theme ‘Our Voices, Our Choices’, recognising the diversity of perspectives
across the Pacific community, and seeking to centre Pacific Island sovereignty in making the decisions
that shape sustainability, security, and prosperity across the region.

The theme foregrounds a clear tension in the region.

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While discussions around climate policy and sustainable resource management will be of the utmost importance for many locals, they are considered matters of secondary importance by major regional powers, like the United States and
Australia, who will be focused on shoring up their own geopolitical standing in the region in the face of growing Chinese influence.

The AUKUS agreement, and particularly Australia’s commitment to purchase and operate a fleet of nuclear submarines in the region, is likely to test the extent to which the smaller Forum members can define and enforce Pacific Islander voices and choices in a region that has already suffered some of the worst effects of the nuclear arms industry as a
result of weapons testing.

The Pacific Islands have long played an important role in the geopolitical manoeuvrings of great powers as strategically located ports and coaling stations for naval forces and merchant vessels operating in the Asia-Pacific region, as fortified strongpoints in maritime security perimeters, and as zones of natural resource extraction.

America’s first Pacific Island territory was claimed under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, introduced to
encourage the exploitation of nitrates used for military production and agriculture.

Today the resources of greatest value to foreign powers lie in the region’s fisheries, timber, energy resources, and minerals.

The vast majority of the region’s mineral exports currently come from Papua New Guinean mines, but new technologies opening up abundant seabed mineral deposits of the Pacific for extraction has spurred a wave of prospecting and speculation in recent years.

The Pacific Islands are also slated to play a major logistical role as hubs on the Air Silk Road, the component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that connects Asia with Central and South America.

China’s economic engagement with the region has grown rapidly over the past two decades.

Today China ranks among the Pacific Islands’ top trading partners, biggest investors, and largest donors of foreign aid.

Its growing economic heft has produced anxiety in Australia, the United States, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, which have positioned themselves as ‘senior partners’ to the Pacific Islands community for many years.

Indeed, Former US President Dwight Eisenhower famously described the South Pacific as an ‘American lake’ in the years following World War Two.

The complex attitudes of Pacific Islanders and their leadership to growing Chinese involvement in the region are rarely represented in Australian or American media, rather it is discussed almost exclusively in terms of a menacing geopolitical threat.

 Australia’s position in the Pacific?

Discussion of the spectre of a growing China threat went into overdrive in March 2022, with the announcement of a new security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China, which prompted expressions of concern at the highest levels in the United States and Australia.
Australian media was awash with opining upon China’s ‘militarisation’ of the region, with little acknowledgment of Australia’s own continuous cooperation with the United States to vastly increase its own, already preeminent, military footprint in the Pacific.

China has expanded its provision of policing training and equipment at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government since the agreement was signed, but nothing further has developed in the way of military expansion.

China’s failure to secure a broader economic and security cooperation agreement with 10 Pacific Island nations later in 2022 seems to have somewhat assuaged Australian and American fears of a ‘red tide’ spreading across the Pacific for the moment.

While the greatly anticipated Chinese military expansion in the region has as yet failed to materialise, the United States and Australia have set a cracking pace of their own.

The AUKUS agreement is the example par excellence here. Set up to bolster the wide array of American, British, and Australian defence and intelligence capabilities across the Indo-Pacific region, the most prominent component of the newly minted military pact will see Australia massively expand its naval capabilities by joining the small club of nations operating a fleet of nuclear submarines.

There have been a number of prominent criticisms of AUKUS levelled by Pacific Island leaders.

One particularly pointed joint statement released by the Pacific Elder’s Voice, made up of former leaders of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Palau, said:

“AUKUS signals greater militarisation by joining Australia to the networks of the US military bases in
the northern Pacific and it is triggering an arms race, by bringing war much closer to home.

“Not only does this go against the spirit of the Blue Pacific narrative, agreed to by all Forum member countries last year, it also demonstrates a complete lack of recognition of the climate change security threat that has been embodied in the Boe Declaration (on regional security) and other declarations by Pacific leaders.”

Australia was a founding signatory of The Treaty of Rarotonga, which established a nuclear-free zone across much of the South Pacific, including Australia, and has been in effect since 1986.

Pacific leaders, including Mark Brown, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands and current Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, have expressed concern over the implications that the submarine deal holds for nuclear non-proliferation and upholding the conditions of the Rarotonga Treaty.

Brown has foregrounded that the issue of nuclear submarines will be a major part of the agenda at this Forum meeting, stating: “The name Pacific means peace, so to have this increase of naval nuclear vessels coming through the region is in direct contrast with that.”

Leaders in New Zealand, Australia’s closest ally and partner, have also expressed reservations over the
AUKUS agreement.

The degree to which the march of regional militarisation being undertaken by Australia and the United States will damage their own relations with this geopolitically critical region remains to be seen, but the total lack of consultation or consideration of Pacific Island nations in formulating regional security policy makes the criticisms of China as the region’s unilateral military destabiliser ring remarkably hollow.