09/23/2021, 14.59
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AUKUS, fears among the islands of the Pacific

by Giorgio Licini *

The new security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States comes at a time when there is talk of a new US military base on Manus Island (PNG). Meanwhile, container ships deliver Chinese goods to ports, while Beijing has set sights on Daru Island. An increasingly armed balance of power is emerging, raising fears that the ocean might became a theatre for military confrontation between major powers.

Port Moresby (AsiaNews) – After 18 months of secret negotiations, Australia has avoided China’s encirclement in the Pacific through a security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom (AUKUS). 

The supply of technology for nuclear-powered submarines is a major part of the pact, but not as much as the promise that durable collaboration will be permanent and multifaceted. 

For at least a couple of years, unconfirmed rumors, but with obvious clues, had circulated, pointing to a new US air base in the Pacific with about 5,000 people next to an Australian naval base on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Soldiers from the two countries have been present for some time, seemingly to rehabilitate an old military facility in Lombrum, which played a crucial role in the Allied campaign in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Not only Papua New Guinea, but all the islands of the Pacific now risk being caught up by the new confrontation between China and the West. The main interests of the two blocs are not in this part of the world, but a lot travels through the Pacific. 

Australia cannot remain trapped in the event of an air and sea blockade. In the worst-case scenario, the vast ocean lends itself to the decisive military confrontation between the two sides, far from their own coasts and the untouchable and perhaps unreachable sanctuaries of Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Shanghai and Shenzen.

War, however, would be catastrophic for the Pacific region and its peoples. Already the sudden pandemic emergency in 2020 highlighted how much the economy can suffer from the interruption, even temporary and partial, of transportation, from delays in the delivery of products from China and Asia in general, from the contraction in demand for non-essential goods. The consequences would be devastating even in the case of mid-range conflict.

The French reacted emotionally to Australia scrapping its agreement to buy French submarines. For Paris, the damage was not only financial and a blow to its international prestige, but also a show of deep disrespect in both form and timing, so much so that the French government recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

Australia was cold and totally detached. Its government and a large part of public opinion place national interests and security ahead of human life and people as evinced by Australia’s approach to the recent crisis involving asylum seekers and refugees.

How much China’s military threat in the world is real or overblown is difficult to say. What is certain is that China has reached unprecedented levels of penetration in the world economy, far grater than any other country in the past. 

It is inevitable that its interests could be easily lost without military backup. In the Pacific (and elsewhere), the Chinese don’t walk around with guns, but their supermarkets are open in cities and their small shops are multiplying in the remotest villages.

Container ships unload Chinese goods in scores of ports. China’s diplomatic missions abroad are very active in securing opportunities for investment, jobs, procurement in both the public and private sectors. Like others, they support host countries with infrastructure and development projects.

Chinese diplomats closely monitor their Taiwanese counterparts in the few countries that still recognise the Republic of China and those that host its cultural or trade delegations, which operate as thinly disguised diplomatic missions. In 2019 Taiwan was forced out of the Solomon Islands.

Despite denials, reports this year began suggesting that China wanted to turn Daru Island into a development hub. Located at the southern tip of Papua New Guinea, the place is but a few kilometres from the nearest Australian islands in the Torres Strait. 

From hindsight such anti-Chinese alarmism, which might seem excessive now, were probably a way for Australia to cover its back should its secret military negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom be leaked.

China has two main concerns, both of which are domestic in nature, but with significant international repercussions.

The first one is about its population and the need for raw materials and resources of various kinds to ensure its survival and development.

The second is the preservation and completion of national unity. Just over 20 years ago, the southern territories of Macau and Hong Kong returned to the motherland after being occupied by European colonial powers in past centuries. 

Following the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, Taiwan broke away from the mainland and remains steadfastly opposed to reunification.

For the international community, China also has other problems to solve in order to be understood and respected rather than feared. Certain complex facts must be mentioned rather than swept under the carpet, starting with domestic democratisation, human rights and pluralism.

The issue is not about adopting a Western model outright, but of having free elections and multiple parties. Contrary to what some believe, they are possible while respecting China’s character and sensitivities, with Taiwan as the living example in the past 70 years.

Also worrisome is the unscrupulous and ethically dubious approach by Chinese businessmen and Beijing’s administrative-diplomatic apparatus in support of China’s economic expansionism, with individual and political corruption as a commonly used tool.

From a geopolitical perspective, the disputes with various countries over a number of Chinese-occupied maritime zones and islands that are near the coast of Philippines and very far from China’s coasts, have raised suspicions about Beijing’s possible use of force when and where it deems it necessary (including in Taiwan). 

Australians have no major or reliable ally in Southeast Asia or the Pacific that could help them keep lines of communication with the world open in case of disruptive actions by China. Well equipped, however, with the atavistic cynicism of their origins, they know not to underestimate Chinese unscrupulousness.

AUKUS has left France and Europe out in the cold, but it will cure the former’s short-sightedness and the latter’s blindness.

It is clear that France has major interests in the Pacific, starting with hundreds of thousands of its own citizens (almost 300,000 in New Caledonia alone). It is also the only European country with substantial post-colonial influence in West Africa and the Pacific.

AUKUS has clipped France’s wings to the extent that its much-coveted monopoly in the East in support of Australia, with all that implied for the decades to come, is now gone. At present, the French can no longer put national prestige before shared European interests.

For its part, the Old Continent, almost blind to the global blocs of interest and tired of its centuries-old history of wars and killings – assuming that it develops some ambition or is forced by events to take sides – cannot do much without France.

In any case, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia also have an interest in mending fences with France and Europe.

AUKUS unequivocally reasserts Anglo-American leadership in the West and is sympathetically viewed by the great pro-Western and anti-Chinese powers of the East (starting with India and Japan). Nevertheless, everyone has an interest in France remaining a Pacific power.

Europe too has an interest in working with AUKUS, not to win a war, which would devastate the Circum-Pacific region, but, perhaps, to preserve the peace, an increasingly armed peace, in a region paradoxically more pacific in name than in fact, which risks being torn apart in the future by external interests and fears.

* Secretary General, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands

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