The unipolar/ multipolar duality is evermore present in the current International Relations narrative, be it in speeches of political leaders, analyses by pundits or media articles. One may argue the world is currently crossing a transition process between the two orders from principle to real actions; the prudent analyst will certainly notice such a process is not a one-way road, but the output of a dynamic equilibrium, a “game of inches” determined by the narrowest of margins. Sadly, in Europe this process has been catalysed by the war in Ukraine which has increased the militarization efforts in the Old Continent; the Indo-Pacific instead seems to (still) witness a fervent – at times tense – diplomatic phase, where sensitive matters are being discussed within cooperation frameworks and values are affirmed in joint statements. For some analysts, a certain weaponization process could be arguably observed in the Indo-Pacific as well, particularly in the security dimension of the above-mentioned frameworks.
One may still expect the United Nations to step up as a factor of cohesiveness which raises above regional groupings, as an expression of the international community.
Until such a voice will be heard and listened to, the Indo-Pacific remains a critical scenario of the rather fluctuating relations between China and the United States; in this context, the Pacific Islands – i.e. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna – could be regarded as an extension of the great power competition in the greater Indo-Pacific area.
The Indo-Pacific at the Confluence of Powers
One could not deny that the Indo-Pacific, a region in continuous economic development and of particular strategic significance in the global architecture, has become the theatre of direct competition between China and the United States, subject to strategies and partnership/ embryonic alliances meant for each side to impress its mark.
China, arguably an established superpower, seeks the need to implement the transition from the current world order to a multipolar one, in which it aspires to be a more active protagonist. One may argue that, in the Indo-Pacific, China, which enjoys mostly appreciative views, is trying to obtain a monopoly of strategic points in the South China Sea and, to some degree of extent, in the Indian Ocean, to be implemented with the construction of ports and a powerful naval fleet. This could be considered an expression of the will to guarantee maritime dominion in the region, well stressed by the naval military exercises, single and joint (especially with Russia), undertaken over time. To achieve these objectives, China has maintained good diplomatic relations with the ASEAN countries, while from an economic standpoint it has registered several major initiatives. Firstly, it has integrated several Pacific islands, i.e. the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, Papa New Guinea, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, into the Belt and Road. China has also expressed its willingness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), thus attempting to undertake a privileged relationship with Australia, Japan and New Zealand, which could in turn shift the balance of power in the region. Similarly, China joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a multilateral free trade agreement, the largest to date in the area, which aims to boost investment and progressively cut customs barriers.
The United States also conceives the Indo-Pacific as essential for its economic and strategic objectives, arguably countering the rise of China in the area, officially described as an “essential challenge”. In fact, the United States are initiating partnerships/ embryonic alliances with other regional or developing powers in the region, while aiming to obtain positive relations with ASEAN. These actions are marked by the obvious difficulty that Washington lacks a true geographical border in the region. Since the United States is located on the edge of the Indo-Pacific, it needs partners within the Indo-Pacific area. On the security side, the United States has created the QUAD (i.e. the Quadrilateral Dialogue, which includes Australia, India and Japan) and the AUKUS Defense Pact (along with Australia and Great Britain). These concepts are further reinforced by the new NATO Strategic Concept which, in addition to defining China as a "systemic competitor", conceives the Alliance itself as a global entity (provided its strengthening relations with Asia-Pacific partners: Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand) and the Indo-Pacific as an essential region for possible future NATO projects. On the economic side, the United States created the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) agreement, focusing on climate issues and reconstruction of supply chains. However, this agreement is not based on free trade.
This goes without saying that political relations between China and the United States have also experienced positive moments. An illustrative example in this regard is the G20 of Foreign Ministers in Bali in July 2022, where the two sides agreed to improve bilateral relations, manage competition responsibly and collaborate on the problem of climate change. Analysts have also taken into account a possible Biden-Xi meeting in the following months.
The Pacific-Islands Vector
The island-nations which populate the immense expanse of the Pacific Ocean have come out of the shadow of international attention in relation to the growing interest in the role that these small and geographically distant nations can play in the fate of the complex political-diplomatic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.
Despite the new diplomatic attention, one may affirm that, when it comes to the Pacific island-nations preferences for partnership, the jury is still out. Indeed, the support of the Ocean Nations for the United States and its Quad partners (India, Japan and Australia), on one hand, or China’s active approach of the Indo-Pacific, on the other, could be considered rather balanced (perhaps even ambiguous, for some analysts) at the time. Under no circumstance, shall one take the dimension of the Pacific-island states for a diminutive importance; their strategic and tactical significance is incontestable. Only two months ago, in July 2022, the Solomon Islands announced that they will prevent all foreign military ships from docking in their ports. A week earlier, Honiara had left unanswered requests to dock a US Coast Guard ship and a British Royal Navy ship: analysts have attributed the reaction to Solomon Islands having signed a defense pact with China.
Based on the publicly available data, the defense pact between China and Solomon Islands seems so far a singular and unique example among the Pacific island-states. On the other side, the multilateral agreement proposed by Beijing to the ten Pacific nations has been put on hold at the beginning of 2022. The head of Chinese diplomacy had chosen to launch the "Pact for the Pacific" from the Fijian capital, the central stop of his tour in the region: his proposal involved a "vision of common development" for the creation of a free trade area, fisheries agreements, technology, police training as well as "traditional and non-traditional" security. Following the initial reservations of Micronesia and Fiji, other nations (i.e. Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon, Niue) have decided to put the agreement “on hold” and take more time to reflect.
A new landmark development in the Pacific has taken place last month, when the United States has launched its first-ever Pacific Islands strategy in parallel with the September 28-29 US-Pacific Islands Country Summit, which reunited 14 Pacific Islands heads of state and the US President.
The US President promised the allocation of US$860 million in economic development aid programs (more than half of the aid provided in the past decade), adding commitments to strengthen communication networks and local health systems. The 11-point joint declaration (which includes Solomon Islands) indicates the fight against climate change as top priority. The United States has thus succeeded in finding a common denominator for all the participating Pacific island-states.
Washington’s change of gear could be thought of as necessary to reaffirm the American interest in a region where Beijing has been filling the diplomatic void created by decades of its apparent disengagement.
Certainly, this is not to say that the United States and China are the only powers present in the region.
The United Kingdom, which still holds overseas territories in the Pacific (Pitcairn Islands) has always sought to mark up its influence in the Pacific. With the separation from the European Union, the United Kingdom is rethinking its role as “Global Britain”, starting with a repositioning in this area. One may expect London might be tempted to start again to re-establish itself as a great power on the international chessboard through its “Indo-Pacific tilt”, which includes the Pacific islands. Indeed, for the UK the exit from the EU may represent an opportunity to start new partnerships of global significance.
Last year, France – which retains large stretches in the Pacific as “overseas territories” – has updated its regional Pacific strategy, becoming a potential third pole (after the United States and China) and possibly limiting the rise of Beijing as a partner for the French overseas territories.
The release of the new French strategy in the Indo-Pacific came in conjunction with President Emmanuel Macron's visit to the region – in 2021 – to strengthen the climate of cooperation with the communities of French Polynesia – reportedly at odds with France’s central government over the legacy of the nuclear tests conducted on site between 1966 and 1974.
France has the advantage of maintaining a permanent military apparatus in Melanesia and Polynesia. This military capability is extended, by virtue of their status as “overseas territories” of France, to several Pacific islands, i.e. New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, which together account for one third of the Pacific Islands' combined Exclusive Economic Zone.
Certainly, in order to become an impactful “third way” in the Pacific and – perhaps – in the Indo-Pacific, France's long-term relations in the region will have to extend far beyond the Pacific Islands to include countries like Australia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
On September 22, 2021, the US President Joe Biden recognized “strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region”. It is in this light that a strategic equilibrium in the Pacific Islands could pass through France's “third way”.
One may consider the outcome of the competition over the Pacific Islands and the greater Indo-Pacific region would prove highly beneficial to the regional actors who find themselves at the confluence of major powers. In fact, despite the confluence, the thoughtful analyst would find the lack of convergence as the main risk-factor to turn competition into a zero-sum game. Shall such scenario become reality, such competition will produce no winner, regardless the side some may choose.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.