Pacific cold war last thing we want

Michael O'KeefeDr Michael O'Keefe

First published in The Australian on 25 March, 2013.






The draft 2013 defence white paper recently leaked to The Australian highlights Canberra's concerns over the potential for increased strategic competition in the Pacific.

Countries are jostling for influence, and China is singled out. China's military modernisation is viewed warily, especially in relation to "modern submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles (and) carrier-based air power".

These are the areas where the US has dominated, the "blue water" capabilities essential for power projection beyond China's "second island chain", into Australia's area of primary strategic concern.

The implications of the rise of China are solidifying and lessons from the start of the Cold War could shed light on the challenging years ahead. In particular, the tendency to securitise issues (such as the shift from cybercrime to cyberwarfare) could exacerbate the likelihood of strategic miscalculation or conflict.

Defence orthodoxies in relation to worst-case-scenario planning are evident in analysis of the changing strategic balance in the Western Pacific. In the South Pacific, Australia is a sheriff in its own right. It responds to many regional challenges, such as development issues, HIV and AIDS, and democracy in Fiji.

However, managing China's rise may be the toughest challenge. The US has shifted to pivot into Asia, has major interests in the South Pacific, and has generally relied on Australia's regional leadership. Australia must lead in managing the peaceful rise of China to suit its interests, those of its ally and Pacific island states.

China is trading more with the South Pacific and its aid budget grew exponentially in the past decade, commensurate with its growing economic power and diplomatic confidence.

It has discovered that converting trade or aid into influence is problematic, especially where traditional partners dominate the strategic seascape. Some planners see the world in black and white, but this is outdated Cold War-style thinking.

Australia has been the partner of choice since most South Pacific islands decolonised. This is under challenge by China and must be addressed, but China won't displace Australia anytime soon.

Defence views the maintenance of security in the South Pacific as a core aim. The white paper contains a range of important initiatives that will refocus defence co-operation in the region. The centrepiece is a new Pacific strategy and this is much overdue.

This will include a new Pacific patrol boat project that highlights Australia's responsiveness to regional interest in protecting the security of exclusive economic zones and dealing with transnational criminal threats, such as people-trafficking, drug-smuggling and illegal fishing. This could reinforce Australia's position as security partner of choice.

However, the strategy's success is contingent on re-engaging with Fiji. Prior to the 2006 coup, the Fijian military was Australia's most significant partner and the access and influence that grew from the Australian Defence Force's military diplomacy has suffered due to the longevity of sanctions. Maintenance of sanctions has provided opportunities that Pacific island states have taken advantage of.

Fiji has been the leader but, as with many things in the Pacific, it has brought other states along with it, and others have followed the model of "look north" engagement developed by Fiji. Countries such as China, Indonesia and Russia have filled the gaps and will displace Australia as lingering goodwill dissipates over time.

Defence planners acknowledge the political sensibilities and note the need for democratic elections before defence co-operation resumes. Elections are scheduled for next year, so the increased focus from Defence is justified. Defence also notes that a whole-of-government approach is needed and this requires greater involvement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Asian century white paper doesn't mention the Pacific, but giving the same incentives and support given to Asia-oriented business to those targeting the Pacific would be a good start.

Since 2006, Australian businesses have largely been going it alone and more contracts are being won by Chinese firms undercutting the competition. Low private-sector investment remains a constraint on development in Fiji, so this is an area where Austrade could prioritise. Similarly, aid could be ramped up, as is already occurring through responses to natural disasters, such as Cyclone Evan last December. Unlike defence co-operation, none of these activities are curtailed by sanctions.

The Pacific often falls between the policy gaps until the government's attention is piqued by some major event or catastrophe. The draft defence white paper provides a window into strategic planning and it's clear that Canberra is refocusing attention on the South Pacific. This shift is welcome but there is a danger that possibilities for co-operation may be narrowed by viewing China in our backyard through a narrow Cold War-style threat matrix.

China's interest in Australia's backyard could be seen as a positive development rather than a challenge, insofar as it creates opportunities for greater co-operation. There have already been positive signals in relation to China's sensitivity to Australia's interests.

A new Cold War in the Pacific is the last thing anyone wants, but we may be witnessing its beginning. China may pose a threat to Australia's interests in the decades ahead, but this is far from inevitable and Australian planners must shape the region to ensure that strategic change is orderly and predictable.

Michael O'Keefe is a lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University