French President warns of Pacific competition creating a “new imperialism”
Visiting Vanuatu last Thursday, Emmanuel Macron president of France commented on the rise of a ‘new imperialism’ in the Pacific. He warned that this trend threatens the sovereignty of small Pacific nations stating that “There is in the Indo-Pacific and particularly in Oceania new imperialism appearing, and a power logic that is threatening the sovereignty of several states – the smallest, often the most fragile.”
President Macron’s comments are important and worth considering carefully. The first observation is that his visit to Vanuatu is historic because it is the first time that a serving French president has visited the Pacific. The visit is a clear sign of how important the Pacific is to Europe.
On one level, the statements made by the president are correct; the Pacific is facing a significant challenge. Sino-American competition is likely to put pressure on small nations to ally with one of the two sides. However, President Macron’s characterisation of this political situation as a ‘new imperialism’ is both ironic; and in my opinion dated. Ironic because France is one of the few European powers that still maintains colonies in the Pacific and dated because trying to understand the current power struggle in terms of 19th or 20th century ‘Imperialism’ oversimplifies the developing realpolitik.
Sino-American competition is different to past diplomatic ‘games’ the modern world is so culturally and economically inter-connected that domination of nation states implied by terms like ‘Imperialism’ is no longer an objective, instead today’s rules are much more subtle. China and the United States do not need to ‘colonise’ Pacific nations they already dominate cultural and economic activity across the globe. Instead, their objective is to develop the influence and relationships required to control maritime trade in the Pacific. The United States seeking to isolate China, while China’s objective is to prevent that happening.
France has always been an outlier in Europe, seeking to chart an independent course in the world. When other European powers gave up their colonies France held on; and about 1.6 million ‘French’ citizens live in their Pacific colonies. France dropped out of NATO for a period and during the Ukraine War its president has been one of the few European nations to try and work with Russia; distancing itself from the United States and United Kingdom’s more ‘hawkish’ approach.
Further, President Macron’s comments were made as the United States Secretaries of State and Defence are both in the Pacific conducting diplomacy and may be interpreted as France trying to offer an alternative approach and position itself as a ‘peace-maker.’ Macron has history with China, earlier this year, on a flight home from Beijing he made statements to Politico reporters supporting the ‘One China’ policy and saying he felt Europe should not necessarily follow the United States into a conflict supporting Taiwan. Comments that caused considerable concern within NATO and the United States.
Since the collapse of its submarine deal with Australia last year, France has relaunched its Pacific strategy. President’s Macron’s statements could be interpreted as trying to compete with AUKUS and United States attempts to develop a security alliance in Melanesia and the Pacific Islands. A complicating factor in Pacific politics.
US diplomacy offensive continues in the Pacific
Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken visits Tonga officially opens new US embassy
On Wednesday, Anthony Blinken the United States Secretary for State visited Tonga and officially opened the nation’s new United States embassy. During this visit he discussed China’s activity in the Pacific describing it as ‘problematic’ citing its military activity in the South China Sea and use of economic power to develop political influence as examples.
Secretary of State, Blinken was not entirely hawkish, clearly stating that the United States has no objection to Chinese trade or diplomatic relationships, only that there must be transparency.
This meeting is another indication of the United States’s commitment building its network of relationships in the Pacific. The United States is acutely aware of the current situation in Melanesia, increasing Chinese influence in Solomon Islands creating a risk to Australia. It is therefore working hard to make sure that small nations like Tonga are being looked after and made to feel part of the United States’s security network.
The United States’s most senior diplomat visiting a small nation like Tonga, very clearly demonstrates American concerns for the region. Essentially, the United States is playing ‘catch up’ and there is some little-known history that helps us understand Tonga’s importance. Tonga has old and long-standing relationships across the Pacific. The nation’s medieval empire spreading from Niue and Samoa west into Fiji, Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia and parts of Solomon Islands. More recently, Tongan soldiers participated in peace-keeping missions in Solomon Islands; and with America in Afghanistan and Iraq. A good relationship with Tonga brings strong influence across a wide swathe of the Pacific. In the future, Tonga may develop as a key American partnership because it provides a trusted local partner able to engage with smaller nations.
Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken visits New Zealand
On Thursday, Anthony Blinken United States Secretary of State made a brief visit to New Zealand and met with the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins. The tour allowed Secretary Blinken to support the United States team playing Netherlands in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and to discuss important diplomatic matters like AUKUS.
Secretary Blinken stating at the press conference that “The door’s very much open for New Zealand and other partners to engage as they see appropriate going forward” and that “We’ve long worked together on the most important national security issues. And so as we further develop AUKUS, as I said, the door is open to engagement.” An important statement considering New Zealand’s historically close military relationships with the AUKUS countries.
Meanwhile US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visits Papua New Guinea
The United States was also diplomatically engaged in Papua New Guinea, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin meeting the nation’s Prime Minister, James Marape to discuss the two nations deepening defence relationship. Secretary Austin commenting that the relationship is about improving Papua New Guinea’s ability to protect itself and its interests.
Further, Secretary Austin stated that the United States does not want to develop permanent bases in the nation. He was very clear saying “I just want to be clear, we are not seeking a permanent base in PNG” after the meeting. A statement clearly made to assuage concerns about militarisation of the region. Both within Papua New Guinea and across the Pacific concern was expressed that the defence agreement will accelerate Sino-American tensions and lead to a more militarised Melanesia.
However, the United States does not need permanent bases in Papua New Guinea because it has a large and ‘safe’ staging area for operations in Australia. It has a logistics infra-structure that allows forces to safely deploy from the United States into Australia, and from there into operational areas further north. The United States is refurbishing Papua New Guinean ports and airports providing ‘in-country’ points-of-disembarkation that may be used for forces deploying from Australia. Flight times to Port Moresby are approximately two hours from Townsville, and about three from Darwin. And; the defence agreement allows the United States to pre-position equipment and supplies in Papua New Guinea.
Logic agrees that the United States doesn’t need a permanent base in Papua New Guinea because the security agreement provides the infra-structure to rapidly deploy forces there, either to operate in Melanesia or to secure forward bases that can protect supply lines from Australia supporting forces fighting in Taiwan. This is important because war in Taiwan would see the South China Sea becoming a very dangerous place, hence the need for a secure supply line via Melanesia and Micronesia that links Australia and the Philippines. Australia providing a ‘safe’ second-line logistics hub and the Philippines providing direct logistics support to United States or NATO forces reinforcing Taiwan. And; this is why both the United States and China are so interested in Melanesia.
Australia – NZ issue statement about Solomon Islands – China security deal
On Wednesday, the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement expressing both nation’s concerns about a new policing agreement signed recently between Solomon Islands and China. The agreement extends a previous deal for China to support the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.
The statement highlighted the lack of transparency associated with the Sino-Solomon Islands security negotiations. A factor that contributes to general uneasiness amongst nations in the region. The joints statement also encouraged the use of the “Pacific Island Forum to discuss these issues and encourage transparency, enabling the region to collectively consider the implications for our shared security.” A sensible approach to a difficult situation, the Pacific Island Forum providing a very useful local arrangement for addressing security issues. By using the Forum, larger nations like the United States, Australia and New Zealand clearly demonstrate that they value their smaller partners. If it is well-supported the Forum may in future provide a basis for a Pacific approach to collective security mitigating concerns about ‘new imperialism’ or external powers militarising the Pacific.
Russia and China visit North Korea to celebrate end of the Korean War
Senior Russian and Chinese officials visited North Korea to help celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Senior Politburo member Li Hongzhong and Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu’s attendance demonstrating a united front between the three nations.
This year’s anniversary celebrations come during a period of increasing tension. North Korea recently conducting three tests of nuclear capable missiles over the Sea of Japan. South Korea and the United States responding to these threats by deploying nuclear powered and armed submarines to the peninsular and establishing a formal nuclear war planning group.
Further, North Korea backs Russia’s war in Ukraine and is accused of supplying weapons to Russia. While both China and Russia continue to circumvent United Nations sanctions on North Korea. This week’s celebration provides a stark picture of the evolving anti-United States and NATO alliance of authoritarian states.
China, Russia and North Korea are a strange alliance that has come together not because of a shared social or economic vision for the future but rather in opposition to liberal democratic forms of government that threaten their authoritarian regimes. Commentators discuss a ‘new Cold War’ and in Pyongyang this week we can see one pole in the new bi-polar world. The next phase of competition between the ‘poles’ is winning influence in the ‘Global South’ and in the Pacific.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger