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.