President Biden visits Vietnam 

After attending the G20 summit in India, United States President Joe Biden visited Vietnam.  Increasingly the two countries are becoming more friendly, Vietnamese imports into the United States almost doubling since 2019 to $127 billion; and Vietnam elevating America’s diplomatic status to the nation’s highest level of recognition -‘comprehensive strategic partner.’ 

President Biden made sure to state that the visit and developing relationship was not intended to contain China or to start a new Cold War.  However, Sino-American competition is a feature of the modern Pacific region and the visit will be interpreted in this light. 

The South China Sea is a key area of interest for both China and the United States. Vietnam dominates the sea’s west side.  The east side is already dominated by United States treaty ally the Philippines.  If the United States has access to ports and bases in both nations then China’s ability to operate in the South China Sea is severely compromised.  

Therefore, even as President Biden tries to defuse tensions China will be watching the situation closely.  

Exercise Garuda Shield – Australia and Indonesia conduct large annual exercise

Since 2009, the Australian and Indonesian militaries have conducted the Garuda Sheild series of annual exercises; and on 1 September, Exercise Garuda Sheild 2023 started.  Approximately 5000 Australian, United States, French, British and Indonesia soldiers exercising their fighting ability on the Indonesian island of Java.

This year the exercise involved a small number of Australian and Indonesian tanks and included live-firing activities. The use of tanks provides a chance for the forces exercising to practice integration of armoured forces into large scale combat operations. Exercises like this are expensive and time consuming but are necessary for honing the skills and relationships required to fight. Further, they demonstrate the participants resolve to defend themselves.  

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Historically, Indonesia has had a good relationship with China. However, in recent years that relationship has been increasingly tense as Indonesia becomes more concerned about China’s aggressive claims in the South China Sea.

Exercises like Garuda Shield and last month’s Talisman Sabre cost a lot of time and money, and the fact that Pacific nations are investing in military training of this nature demonstrates their level of concern about Chinese activity in the Pacific. Specifically, the deployment of tanks indicates that the participants believe a future conflict will be high-intensity and that preparation for a combined arms battlefield on which tanks, artillery and airpower will be used is required. Further, the number of nations and their geographic spread is also important because it demonstrates that even European nations taking the situation developing in the Pacific seriously.  

United States and Canadian warship transit the Strait of Taiwan

Recently, Canadian and United States warships USS Ralph Johnson and HMCS Ottawa transited the Straits of Taiwan, exercising the right to freely navigate the open ocean.  Thereby challenging China’s legally unsupported claim that the Straits of Taiwan are Chinese territorial waters.

Freedom of transit patrols are a common activity and have a long historic precedent.  However, by their very nature they are challenging and create the potential for mistakes and sudden escalations. 

Chinese guns in the Solomon Islands???

On 8 September, Al Jazeera News reported that in March 2022 China secretly provided firearms to the Royal Solomon Islands Police.  The guns shipped to the islands with export documents claiming that they were replica weapons. Later, that day the Royal Solomon Island Police issued a statement claiming that the guns are replicas used for training and cannot be fired. 

However, Al Jazeera disputes this claim and released United States diplomatic cables, stating that: “But despite official denials, US diplomats concluded that the firearms appeared to be real and that Solomon Island authorities were attempting “to recategorize an illicit arms shipment as an authorised shipment of ‘replica’ firearms”, according to a cable written by the US embassy in Papua New Guinea.” 

This situation is concerning, Solomon Islands is a volatile nation with a recent history of political violence. If Al Jazeera’s reports are correct and working firearms were imported into the country then the shipment’s arrival date corresponds with a period of violence and rioting in the capital, Honiara.  

A key success of the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands in the early 2000s was that it significantly reduced the number of firearms in the community and therefore the potential for political issues to escalate into warfare.  Secret imports of weapons into any country are always troubling, especially when the country has a history of political and ethnic violence.  There is simply no legitimate reason for well-governed nations to be exporting or importing firearms secretly raising questions about the deal. 

Vanuatu government transfers peacefully, after Supreme Court upholds ‘no confidence’ vote

Recently, this column discussed the Vanuatu opposition party’s motion of ‘no confidence’ in the country’s Prime Minister, Ishmael Kalsakau.  The vote was tight and legally challenged, forcing the Supreme Court of Vanuatu to rule on the issue.  On 25 August, the Supreme Court issued its decision, ruling that the ‘no confidence’ motion was won by the opposition.

This situation led to a change of government last week and the election of a new Prime Minister Sato Kilman, who is entering a fifth term as prime minister.  Kilman is closer to China than his predecessor and is likely to re-negotiate the security agreement with Australia that initiated the ‘no confidence’ motion. 

This turn of events is another loss for Australia in Melanesia, Vanuatu being likely to reject the recent security agreement with Australia and align itself more closely with China.  Vanuatu is important to Australia’s security because it is strategically located roughly in the middle of Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia.  It is about 2000km from Brisbane and if China bases military forces there and in Solomon Islands it would pose a significant threat to Australian maritime trade in the Coral Sea.  Access to these islands also provides opportunities for long-term intelligence gathering both undersea information (a possible counter to the new AUKUS submarines), signals intelligence and surveillance of sea and air space.  

Therefore, we can be sure that Australia will be looking for opportunities to win back influence in Vanuatu. A difficult task since Australia already provides most of Vanuatu’s monetary foreign aid support meaning that developing a stronger relationship require use of other resources. For instance, economic aid, education support or direct relationship building between key figures.  Historically, Australia does not always have a good reputation in Melanesia and has burnt bridges that need to be rebuilt. 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger 

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