BY CLEO PASKAL
IN EARLY MARCH, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made unusually direct comments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about America's position in the Pacific.
"Let's just talk straight real politik. We are in competition with China," she said. All over the Pacific, China is trying to "come in behind us and come in under us." And it is working. China's influence in the island nations of the Pacific is growing dramatically, and the repercussions are global.
But the fault does not lie completely with the US, and the win is not completely China's.
The door for China's dramatic increase in influence in the island nations of the Pacific was opened by decades of mismanagement of Pacific affairs by western allies Australia and New Zealand. And if the US and the west want to regain ground, the two Pacific partners are going to have to rethink how they engage with the region.
It should not have come to this. As Clinton noted, the island nations of the Pacific are natural Western allies. "We have a lot of support in the Pacific Ocean region. A lot of those small countries have voted with us in the United Nations, they are stalwart American allies, they embrace our values." The tiny Kingdom of Tonga, population of 100,000, for example, has just sent troops to Afghanistan.
Also, from a real politik point of view, the region has quite a bit to offer. Far from being a bottomless pit of development aid, the Pacific is important economically, politically, and strategically.
Strategically, this vast area is the front line between Asia and the Americas. It is crisscrossed by increasingly important trade routes linking Asia and South America, as well as vitally important transpacific fibre optic cables. It hosts geostrategic military bases. It has safe harbours in allied hands. Especially as China moves down through the South China Sea, keeping the countries of the Pacific safe, stable and friendly is going to be crucial for Western security.
Unfortunately for the west, the challenges to the Pacific partnership are too deep to be solved with a flying visit. The current crop of problems mostly dates back to the end of the Cold War. As the Soviet sphere contracted and imploded, the Pacific seemed to lose its strategic value.
The diplomatic and strategic forward bases of the 'Big Boys', the US and Britain, were scaled back, or shut down, and the security of the region was essentially outsourced to Australia and New Zealand.
On paper, Australia and New Zealand seem up to the job. Their influence is seemingly pervasive [but] part of the problem lies in Australia and New Zealand's confused approach to the Pacific. The main focus seems to have been economics, not security.
Australia and New Zealand's political engagement in the region has been problematic, with American Samoa's member of the US Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, describing it as "inept policies and heavy-handed actions".
In our multi-polar world, when one weakens one's friends, one weakens oneself. And it seems as though for the last little while, Australian and New Zealand policies have weakened the Pacific. The narrow focus on primarily short-term economic benefits to certain nations has to stop. The Pacific is no longer their backyard; it is the new front line.
The Pacific is the west's to lose. And we have been doing a good job of it. It is up to us to say "no more".
Source: Extracted from ‘The World Today’, Volume 67, Number 4, April 2011. Cleo Paskal is an Associate Fellow for the Energy, Environment and Resource Governance Programme at Chatham House