Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 19, 2022

In the second of a two-part series, as the Indo-Pacific takes central focus in geopolitics, democratic nations must work to keep the region’s strategically located island nations out of China’s sphere of influence

Great powers and small islands: The democratic powers need to “lean in”

In the first article, we argued that developments in the Pacific are of direct interest to the global community. At the most fundamental level, the region’s experience of climate change will signal what is ahead for the rest of the world.  And in geo-strategic terms, China’s growing activity in the region portends significant changes in the global strategic balance. The democratic powers cannot simply leave it to Australia, their leading “standard bearer” in the Pacific, to support and engage the region amidst an increasingly difficult struggle between two value systems.

Fortunately, the old-fashioned view that the Pacific should remain “our patch” is hard to find among serious Australian strategists these days. Canberra has always worked willingly in the region with New Zealand, which remains a modest but useful partner in the Pacific and adds particular value in the Polynesian sub-region given its links there. But there is a new openness in Canberra to working in alliance with like-minded others from further afield.

India can make an important contribution by lending its strategic weight to the democratic effort in the region. The inspirational value, to the Pacific Island nations, of India’s development story and its status as a major Indo-Pacific power is not to be underestimated. If people-to-people links provide Australia with a solid platform for positive engagement with the Pacific then the same is true of India, with its strong diaspora in the region, focused on the longstanding community in Fiji but extending to more modern waves of migration, business travel and international employment, which have seen people of Indian origin move into positions of increasing influence right across the region. They are making an important contribution and can be thought of as a strategic asset.

Building on these links, India and Fiji announced in October this year that the prestigious World Hindi Conference will take place in Nadi, Fiji, in 2023. This is smart public diplomacy; it supports India’s assertion of Hindi as a global language. It also makes the useful point that there is a cultural platform for further economic and security engagement with the Pacific region.

Commitment to this kind of engagement is clearly building, both bilaterally and through the quadrilateral security alliance. Australia and India have lifted their defence and security collaboration very substantially in recent years, in the context of both their bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership and their joint membership, with Japan and the United States, of the Quadrilateral Alliance (the “Quad”). Their security collaboration has a maritime focus, reflecting the strong complementarity between their navies’ respective projections in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Last month, they refreshed their cooperation by coming together with the other Quad members for joint exercises in the Philippine Sea, one of the gateways between the two great oceans. Canberra and New Delhi have built a substantial platform for further bilateral maritime surveillance cooperation through their joint work in the Indian Ocean, which both countries’ naval doctrines already define as a region of enduring strategic interest.

In recent times, the pattern of Indian high-level engagement has tilted east perceptibly, towards Australia and the Pacific. Indian Foreign Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, has visited Australia twice this year to strengthen bilateral ties and discuss enhanced collaboration in the region. The PNG Foreign Minister has indicated publicly that planning is underway for a potential visit to the country next year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, presumably in conjunction with his visit to Australia for the Quad Summit. This would be the first visit by an Indian head of government to the Pacific’s largest nation.

India’s role is central to the evolving geopolitical role of the Quad and its clearly stated aim of upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

This is all very welcome. India’s role is central to the evolving geopolitical role of the Quad and its clearly stated aim of upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. There is great potential for the Quad to play an even stronger regional security role, notwithstanding the natural differences between its members’ strategic threat perception, risk tolerance and strategic culture - India, in particular, arguably the most exposed to Chinese retaliation, differs from the other members in terms of its overall strategic alignment. It cannot rest, like the others, on a formal military alliance with the United States, and its determination to maintain strategic autonomy will keep it focused on multi-alignment.

Notwithstanding these differences, cooperation among the Quad members seems set to strengthen as China continues to challenge the rules-based order. In extending its collaboration across both the military and development sectors, the Quad should focus its collective energy a little more on the Pacific, while still maintaining its existing strong collaboration on the “Indo” side of the greater region. The Australian Government will no doubt want to put some of the focus on the Pacific when Prime Minister Albanese hosts his Quad counterparts in Canberra next year.

This collaboration is not limited to the military sphere. The establishment in 2021 of the Quad Infrastructure Coordination Group–an expert panel to identify new infrastructure projects across the region to be part-financed by member countries–signalled a desire to compete with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to strengthen infrastructure investment across the region.

Each of the Quad partners have been working in parallel to strengthen their bilateral security and development links with each other. The India-Japan relationship is one of the strongest strands in all this, and each member has its own substantial strategic relationship with the US. Over the last year, Australia and Japan, for their part, have signed a bilateral security partnership and an agreement allowing their forces reciprocal access to each other’s military bases and ports. Australia recognises that Japan has been a consistent supporter of development in the Pacific; it is the third largest bilateral donor there after Australia and New Zealand. And Japan shares Australia’s serious concerns about the detrimental impact of Chinese military engagement in the region. The two countries collaborate extensively on Pacific development projects.

Each of the Quad partners have been working in parallel to strengthen their bilateral security and development links with each other.

The United States has recently swung in with some additional support, announcing the first ever US-Pacific partnership strategy in September and convincing Pacific Island countries, including the Solomons, to embrace an associated framework agreement underpinned by a significant increase in US development expenditure. This followed announcements earlier in the year that Washington would move to expand its diplomatic footprint in the region, establishing missions in Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Kiribati. Each of these countries have, to some extent, fallen into China’s embrace in recent years.

Show some respect

It’s important that the democratic powers put new energy into working together in the region, but it’s also vital that the Pacific countries themselves feel consulted and respected in the process. The AUKUS partnership, unveiled in September 2021, is an important initiative to strengthen ties between Canberra, London, and Washington in the region. The Australian media leapt on an evident failure of communication with France—this important Pacific partner was affronted by Australia’s abrupt abandonment, in its rush to join the new alliance, of a submarine deal with French industry.

AUKUS has great potential, but the story of its birth is a useful reminder that if the aim is to build influence in the region, it’s important to recognise the people who live there, and to respect their perspective

France wasn’t the only one. The countries of the Pacific were also surprised by AUKUS.  They were not pleased about the announcement of substantial upgrades in defence expenditure in the Pacific, and particularly the headline initiative that Australian nuclear-powered submarines would be deployed in their region. Some of these countries had experienced their own traumas with nuclear testing in the 20th century, and they lashed out. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that Australia and its AUKUS partners should shift their focus to what the Pacific sees as the highest priority. “If we can spend trillions on missiles drones, and nuclear submarines” he said, “we can fund climate action”. Leaders from across the region said that it would have been nice to be consulted, or at least forewarned.

AUKUS has great potential, but the story of its birth is a useful reminder that if the aim is to build influence in the region, it’s important to recognise the people who live there, and to respect their perspective. The Pacific is not a vacant expanse, after all.

To read the first part of the series, click here.

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Ian Kemish

Ian Kemish

Ian Kemish is a former Australian ambassador. He is Expert Associate with the ANU National Security College and an Adjunct Professor with the University of ...

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