Last week, the UK announced it was establishing diplomatic representation in nine countries: Lesotho, Swaziland, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. From an Oceanian perspective, this might be a game changer.

This article was written by Cleo Paskal, an Associate Fellow, Chatham House, London and Director, The Oceania Research Project (protorp.org).

There has been concern in capitals around the globe that the region is drifting towards China. Some analysts believe that politicians in Australia and New Zealand, the major Western nations tasked with “strategic management” in the region, have prioritised a narrow domestic economic agenda over regional prosperity and security, opening the door to Beijing in the process – often to the dismay of their defence and intelligence communities.

This opening up seemingly accelerated once the semi-autonomous New Zealand Aid was integrated into Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2009), and the Australian Agency for International Development came under the control of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2013). Some aid funding started to be more directly linked to economic advantage for New Zealand and Australia, as opposed to creating domestic security in the Pacific.

For example, large amounts of Australian and New Zealand aid have been earmarked for “harmonising” the legal systems of countries signed on to the PACER Plus free trade agreement, despite the fact that the deal is regionally divisive and seemingly of little value to Pacific nations, which already have quota- and tariff-free access to Australia and New Zealand markets via the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Co-operation Agreement.

PACER Plus is overtly designed to enshrine Australia’s and New Zealand’s economic primacy in the region. The New Zealand Government National Interest Analysis of the deal said it would “preserve New Zealand’s position against major competitors from outside of the region in the years to come”. One of these “competitors” is the U.K..

That focus on trying to grab as much of the economic pie as possible, even if it makes the pie smaller, has hobbled regional economies and made them more open to Chinese engagement. That has resulted in the loss not only of political leverage for Canberra and Wellington (and by extension their strategic partners), but also, ultimately, of economic leverage as well. The policy hasn’t been working for anyone except China.

There were recent reports, denied by the parties concerned, that China was interested in a “naval base” in Vanuatu. A standard component of Chinese expansion has been an interest in ports. There is talk of a port development in Samoa, and a slipway in Tonga.

These projects are usually presented as commercial in nature, but there are concerns they could become dual-use (commercial and military). Additionally, given China’s penchant for exporting domestic corruption, there is the possibility they will become triple-use (commercial, military, and criminal), and function as conduits for drugs and human trafficking.

However, especially given the denials coming from Vanuatu, there are questions about how the naval base story was broken, and whether it would be used as a pretext for intervention. It would be good to have another set of friendly eyes analysing the situation.

Enter the U.K.. In the post-Brexit era, the U.K. will be looking to make itself more valuable to its various partners. One area in which it already has a very deep bench is intelligence and strategic analysis. Two of the diplomatic missions the U.K. is reopening, in Tonga and Vanuatu, were only closed in 2006. There are people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other circles with strong knowledge of the region and good contacts.

The U.K. also had existing representation in Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. With six posts in the South Pacific, the U.K. will have better coverage in the region than the U.S. (excluding its Freely Associated States), France, Germany, India, or just about anyone else except Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, and China.

Within the region, the U.K. is seen as a benign, if not actively friendly, partner. Tongans, Samoans, and ni-Vanuatu can receive six-month visitor visas on arrival in the U.K., unlike the costly and onerous process involved in visiting Australia or New Zealand. In the U.K., the Tongan King has a higher diplomatic status than any Australian or New Zealand politician. The generational relationships between traditional leaders in the Pacific and royals and others in the U.K. offer a permanent backchannel built on long-standing trust.

Read the full article courtesy of RealClearDefense.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Would be really nice if a Royal Navy vessel could pop in and say hello to the tiny(about 50 people) community on Pitcairn-the last British possession in the Pacific and an important marine environment.

    • No thanks. RN should not disgrace itself by visiting the rape colony of Pitcairn. We really should kick them out.

        • 4 of the Male inhabitants were charged for sex with under age females and were sentenced to a form of House Arrest as the simple truth is that the community could not function without them. Ben P-unfair and totally impractical to punish the whole community for the sins of the few. The presence of the Royal Navy and similar input is a DUTY-not a charity. The UK is entirely responsible for the welfare of these British peoples and British Overseas territory

  2. ..that is of course on the assumption that none of Fletcher Christians descendants run the risk of charges of Mutiny by association!!

  3. I was under the impression,mainly due to the BBC constantly telling me,that Vanuatu is under doomed due to rising sea levels.Surely the Chinese are aware of this?

  4. Henderson Island could easily accomodate an airfield and I am sure a protected harbour could be built but it will never happen as long as the British are in charge with plans for a huge Marine reserve around the islands. The Chinese would have absolutely no qualms about building a facility there if the Brits abandoned the place so again Ben P, if we “kicked them out” the vacuum could be filled by others queuing up including those who want to build Tourist Hotels and Casinos!!

  5. Interesting article. There is real potential there for the UK to renew deep and long lasting friendships in that part of the world-the reopening of the representative posts are a small but important sign of deeper engagement, as is the presence of the RN through this year. As with most things though it comes down to resources, and whether we are prepared to stump up the money and manpower to have a real positive impact in that part of the world again.

    • Sensible article. Let’s hope wise heads prevail. If BAE get the order it will be deserved. Type 26 is the best offering versus the spec and as BAE have proved with the Anzac upgrades they are no slouch as naval engineers.

  6. A single landing ship, our fleet flagship is sent to the other side of the world but she is unescorted and is not at the head of a small task group. Because we have no spare frigates or destroyers to send with her. Fact is the royal navy has stumbled down to just 15 operational warships currently and is a state of weakness worse than at any time in our history. Very worried.
    We need type 26 and type 31 frigates built in numbers and with the due haste and urgency our current dire defence posture justifies. HMG are asleep at the wheel. Let’s just hope we do not crash into anything.

  7. Fascinating article. Don’t think we need a permanent naval presence to increase our diplomatic and economic relationships indeed in some ways that might be counter productive. What if we facilitated a common naval force for these states with OPV’s built and financed here ?

  8. This type of operation should be what we have a decent number of type 31s for (10 or more hulls needed) They can go off patrolling the Pacific and Asia and running up the flag and doing defence diplomacy leaving our core fleet of QE carriers, Type 45 and type 26 + Astutes protecting UK and safeguarding Atlantic commerce.

  9. Sometimes…… I just despair at all the comments and wonder just why people take the trouble to Type…………….. Who Do You Think Is Reading ? What do you think you are achieving ? Who the Feck Cares ?……………..

  10. Can’t help thinking that by over stretching across the globe, all we are doing is showing our lack of depth to our allies and not really showing strength.

    The t31 debate is a red herring, since we are not getting extra hulls, all we are getting is less well equipped ones. Reality is the navy can’t man the ships it has now, increasing the manning requirements with the stupid river2 and the carriers is just making things worse and so zero chance the “at least” comment will result in more than 19 escorts, more likely it will result in less.

    Sending unescorted assault ships or aux ships is falling no one. Bright side the french were there to make the picture look better with their frigate.

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