Deepening Security Ties in the Commonwealth Pacific
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Security cooperation in the Pacific has taken on greater urgency in the face of shared concerns. Driven by a commitment to a partnership of equals, and a spirit of collaboration, countries across the region are increasingly seeing the mutual benefits of deeper ties.
The two largest countries in Oceania, Australia and New Zealand, have both recognised the security and prosperity of the Pacific Island nations as integral to achieving their own foreign policy objectives. In 2016 Australia announced its ‘Step-up’ in the Pacific programme, a series of investment and collaboration efforts that aim to “build a Pacific region that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically”. Likewise, in 2018 the government of New Zealand put forward its vision for future collaboration in the Pacific. Known as the ‘Reset’, New Zealand’s mission in the Pacific is framed in their 2018-2022 Strategic Intentions report as a shift in their “engagement with the Pacific to a relationship built on understanding, friendship, mutual benefit and a collective ambition to achieve sustainable results in collaboration with Pacific neighbours”.
These policies have significant overlap and synergy. In the 2019 Joint Statement on Defence Cooperation in the Pacific Region both nations expressed their “intentions to work together in the Pacific region, in line with Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ and New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Reset’” emphasising that “engagement and activities [must be] well-coordinated.” Both are driven by Australia and New Zealand’s shared regional security goals: combatting the rising influence of China in the region and curbing the impact climate change is set to have in the Pacific. Moreover, both nations stress that these initiatives differ from historic programmes in the same vein, emphasising collaboration and multilateralism rather than paternalistic cash transfers and prescriptive policy suggestions.
So far, this foreign policy tack has focused on flagship infrastructure projects that have boosted security and prosperity throughout the Pacific. The Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific has provided A$2 Billion worth of grant and loan financing for transformational energy, water, transport and telecommunications projects. The laying of the Coral Sea Cable has provided a foundation for advanced telecommunications in The Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Similarly, New Zealand has entered a Strategic Partnership with the Solomon Islands focused on sustainable infrastructure development.
Both the Step-Up and the Reset are driven by an evolving set of geostrategic circumstances. Firstly, the Pacific is likely to face disproportionate difficulties in the face of climate change as small and coastal states face increased disaster risk and rely on biologically diverse oceans for economic sustainability. The Pacific Islands Forum ratified the Boe Declaration, driven by leaders of small island nations, in 2018 which asserts “that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. Given the grave nature of climate change in the Pacific, it is believed that the problem cannot be mitigated without robust international cooperation; driving both the ‘Step-up’ and the ‘Reset’. In essence the nations of the Pacific see themselves as mutually reliant on one another.
Secondly, the growing presence of China in the Pacific is presenting some difficult choices for Pacific leaders. The Chinese have been offering attractive loan packages to governments in the Pacific region in order to expand their sphere of influence. Nations are accepting large loans from the Chinese and there are fears that they could be exposing themselves to extensive demands from Beijing when they face difficulty repaying them. Lines of credit extended by Australia and New Zealand provide more agency for Pacific governments looking to finance essential infrastructure projects and act as a curb to excessive Chinese influence in the region.
While the driving forces are closely aligned, the rationale behind the policies are not strictly identical. New Zealand places greater emphasis on a shared “Pacific identity” which is rooted in “history, culture, politics, and demographics” in the words of Winston Peters, New Zealand’s Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Australian focus is more explicitly rooted in the region’s shared security concerns.
Whilst the majority of spending has been on infrastructure projects, the ‘Step-up’ and the ‘Reset’ have seen a deepening of security ties with the Pacific Islands; in defence, humanitarian and civil contexts. As 2020 has unfolded, this process has accelerated.
The Pacific Fusion Centre is to be established in Vanuatu, commencing operations in 2021. In partnership with Australian government, the centre will host experts sharing information and analysis on transnational security challenges such as illegal fishing, human and drug trafficking as well as disinformation. The Foreign Minister of Vanuatu, Marc Ati, has noted that “Vanuatu looks forward to working with Australia to establish the Pacific Fusion Centre, to complement and bolster existing regional security architecture.”
Work to begin a multi-million-dollar programme of collaboration between the New Zealand and Fiji police forces to tackle transnational crime is set to start this year. The collaboration will centre around combatting transnational crime with a focus on preventing drug trafficking as well as enhancing forensic investigation capabilities. The government of New Zealand will invest NZ$11 Million into the program over three years.
Although many regional cooperation efforts are led by Australia and New Zealand, in a number of areas the Small Island Nations lead security cooperation. Fiji and Vanuatu chair the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat sub-Committee on the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. This committee is responsible for the long-term planning of the Pacific region’s strategies to anticipate and respond to drivers of change. Foremost amongst these is “Ongoing vulnerabilities to environmental, climate change, disaster risk and economic shock” . In this position Fiji and Vanuatu play a key role in shaping the region’s joint strategy for combatting high level security threats.
Alongside this, there has been an extension of military cooperation in the Pacific Islands. The New Zealand Ministry of Defence published a strategy outline entitled Advancing Pacific Partnerships in 2019 which “increases the priority for the New Zealand Defence Force to be able to operate in the Pacific to the highest level of priority, on par with New Zealand’s own territory…achieved foremost by advancing partnerships and supporting existing regional security architectures.”
In further signs of growing Pacific defence cooperation the Australian National University, in collaboration with the Australian Government, has established the Australia Pacific Security College which is designed to enhance the capabilities of officials from Pacific military and defence agencies to deal with a broad range of security issues. Some of the issues focused on are climate threats, disaster resilience as well as cybercrime and transnational crime.
The ‘Step-up’ and the ‘Reset’ have both been accelerated by the Covid-19 Pandemic as Australia and New Zealand partner with the Pacific Islands to strengthen their responses to the crisis.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told G20 leaders in March 2020 that “there has never been a more important time for Australia’s Pacific Step-up as we all face these massive challenges” and that rhetoric has been supported by action. On October 31st, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced that Australia would spend A$500 million on advance purchase of Covid-19 vaccines to help neighbours in the Pacific recover from the pandemic, which comes on top of A$23 million that has already been spent on combatting the virus in the Pacific, contributing to the maintenance of essential services as well as providing PPE and testing capacity. Going forward Australia has committed to spending A$304.7 million in the region specifically focused on rebuilding in the wake of Coronavirus.
New Zealand has also worked closely with Pacific Island governments to help combat Coronavirus. An initial support package costing NZ$50 million “helped the Pacific countries to prepare health systems, and helped address wider health, economic, governance and social challenges arising from the effects of the pandemic.”
It is clear that ties in the Pacific region will continue to deepen as the ‘Step-up’ and the ‘Reset’ have become the prime directives in Australia and New Zealand’s foreign policies. The greater emphasis on mutual cooperation and a partnership of equals distinguishes these efforts from much earlier programmes. This also points to hopes that the growing cooperation can be sustained, and that the shared security concerns of the wider Pacific region can be addressed. With nearly all the countries involved members of the Commonwealth, it is hoped too that shared values and norms as codified by the Commonwealth Charter will sit at the forefront of regional security policy.