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Trouble in Vanuatu, caused by security discussions

Vanuatu is a small former French colony roughly 400km north-east of New Caledonia and 900km due west of Fiji. Last week, the nation was engaged in a political debate about its security relationship with Australia. The nation’s opposition party raising concerns about a bi-lateral agreement recently signed between the nations.

The criticism is led by a former Prime Minister, Bob Loughman who entered a motion of ‘No-Confidence’ in Prime Minister Ismael Kalsakau partly because of the new security agreement with Australia. 

An ironic position, since Loughman was criticised during his tenure for signing similar agreements with China. The motion stating in part that “The Hon Prime Minister and his Government must conduct its relations impartially and not allow our independent and sovereign nation to be sucked into a game it does not want and to be used inappropriately by competing nations to exert dominance in our region,” and although not explicitly stating the situation, the motion references the relationship with Australia and its impacts on wider Sino-American Pacific power struggles.

The question is whether, or even if Loughman’s criticism is influenced by China and if so, how directly.  Vanuatu is obviously another small Pacific nation caught in Sino-American competition and struggling to work out the best way to manage the situation.  A scenario that is being played out across the Pacific and one that has the potential to create considerable political instability, especially in smaller, less well-governed nations.  

 

Large Australian military exercise finishes – What does it tell us about the Pacific? 

Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023 finished last week, and the exercise tells us a great deal about the growing militarisation of the Pacific.  The exercise was the largest international exercise ever conducted in Australia and involved 30,000 service personnel from 13 nations.  Some key observations are:

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  • The 13 nations involved included the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France.  NATO nations building relationships and practicing inter-operability with Pacific nations.  An early example of NATO’s new Pacific strategic focus being delivered. Exercising naval, air and ground forces together tests inter-operability in a joint environment confirming that these components of combat power can work together effectively. 
  • The exercise provides the United States with an opportunity to test and adjust its approaches to working with both its European allies in the Pacific and with less technologically advanced local militaries.  The aim being to achieve inter-operability that allows the local knowledge and relationships of local armies to be harnessed as part of joint military forces.  
  • Logistics arrangements were tested.  Australia hosted 30,000 people across an enormous area, providing an opportunity to test the administrative procedures and logistics required if a large joint force was generated in the area.  Further, the extensive scale of the exercise tested the ability of allies to coordinate activities over a large geographic area, a vital skill in the Pacific. 

The key observation from this year’s Exercise Talisman Sabre is that Australia, the United States and their allies are taking preparations for conflict in the Pacific very seriously, a strong message for everybody with an interest in the region. 

 

China and the Philippines continue butting heads in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is a heavily contested part of the Pacific Ocean; China, Philippines and Vietnam regularly enforcing claims to small islands in the area. China has an aggressive position, that the South China Sea is their coastal waters an opinion that although not supported by international law provides the basis for a programme of naval bullying and hybrid war against other claimants. Tactics that include, large Chinese Coast Guard vessels threatening to ram or collide with other nations ships, using lasers to blind ships from other nations and the development and fortification of artificial islands built on small reefs.  

Philippines claims an area called the Second Thomas Shoal and in the late-90’s grounded a derelict warship on the reef to use as a base to assert its sovereignty over the reef.  Soldiers from the Philippines Marine Corp garrison the ship and assert Philippines claim to the reef.  

Since then, China has been demanding that the ship be removed and in recent years has become increasingly aggressive, including blockading resupply. On 5 August, Chinese Coast Guard ships used watercannon and aggressive manoeuvres to stop Philippines vessels resupplying the garrison on the reef.  The Philippines government complained diplomatically on 7 August.

This situation has been going on for a long time and demonstrates the use of hybrid tactics; a mix of military and civil interventions that fall into a ‘grey zone’ below war-fighting. In this case, China makes a legal claim to the South China Sea and although unsubstantiated by international courts pursues it using force.  The force it uses is non-military but coercive, Coastguard vessels rather than naval vessels. Bulk and watercannon rather than bullets. However, with the same effect preventing Philippines from re-supplying its garrison. 

If tensions continue to increase in the Pacific, we should expect to see more of this type of activity in other parts of the region. Competitors using hybrid strategies to block their opponents territorial or diplomatic initiatives.  

 

US sends warships north to monitor Russian and Chinese naval patrol

A combined patrol of approximately eleven Chinese and Russian naval ships transited close to the Aleutian Islands, an American territory in the North Pacific.  The patrol did not enter American territorial waters but is noteworthy because it is a significant force, cruising close to the United States at a time of high tension including the War in Ukraine and Sino-American competition in the Pacific. 

The United States sent four warships to the area and used aircraft to monitor the Russo-Chinese fleet.  A Chinese spokesman was quoted in the Wall Street Journal stating that

“According to the annual cooperation plan between the Chinese and Russian militaries, naval vessels of the two countries have recently conducted joint maritime patrols in relevant waters in the western and northern Pacific Ocean. This action is not targeted at any third party and has nothing to do with the current international and regional situation.” 

This statement is an example of diplomatic double-speak, eleven foreign warships exercising anywhere near the United States is a cause for concern especially at a time of heightened tension and the exercise would be specifically designed to send a message to the United States. 

In 2015, a Chinese amphibious ship with a small escort was identified in the Bering Sea indicating that China’s Navy was starting to venture into this area. Then in September 2021, another Chinese patrol was recorded only 80km from the Aleutian Islands. 

The United States and other navies use similar tactics, any ship can freely transit international waters allowing navies to observe a potential foes coast and test their response.  China and Russia’s actions are not illegal; or immoral but they are aggressive and demonstrate a willingness to step back into relations more akin to the Cold War. Militaries constantly probing and testing potential adversaries.  An unfortunate development that will likely herald similar behaviour in other parts of the Pacific. 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger 


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