By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — Marking the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 37 years to South Pacific’s major power Fiji, Antony Blinken during his 8-hour stay on February 13 insisted that the US is a Pacific nation and unveiled a raft of new strategies to better engage with the nations across the vast South Pacific Ocean.
In comments made in the Fijian capital Suva, Blinken made no secret of the fact that his visit to the South Pacific is motivated by a desire for the US to strengthen its presence in the region to match the growing influence of China. He said that China had combined its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might to pursue “a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power”.
While he was making these comments in Fiji, a fleet of Chinese naval vessels was sailing into Tonga—after 16 days of non-stop sailing—with relief supplies for the tsunami hit South Pacific nation.
They docked in on February 15 and according to an announcement by the Chinese military news website two naval ships brought a total of 1,400 tons of supplies including mobile houses, tractors, generators, pumps, water purifiers, emergency food and medical and epidemic prevention equipment. All the supplies had received disinfection processing and quarantine for multiple times before loading.
Australian and New Zealand naval ships have earlier taken emergency aid to Tonga, but the Australian ship carrying the aid was found to contain sailors with COVID-19 infections and Tonga had to go into lockdown to stem the virus infections because the country has had no COVID-19 cases since the pandemic hit the globe two years ago.
There is some concern in the region whether the US’s new found interest in the region would create conflict rather than development in a region that has been largely peaceful for decades.
When questioned by reporters about US intentions for “authentic engagement that speaks to the real needs of the islanders”, Blinken replied that the US sees the Pacific as the region for the future, and that their intentions were beyond mere security concerns. “It’s much more fundamental than that.”
“When we are looking at this region that we share, we see it as the region for the future, vital to our own prosperity, our own progress,” he was quoted by Radio New Zealand. Blinken insisted that Washington’s new strategy was about using democracy and transparency to build a free and open Indo-Pacific which was committed to a “rules-based order”.
Blinken came to Fiji immediately after attending a meeting in Melbourne of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) foreign ministers that included India, Australia and Japan along with the US. QUAD is an alliance which is attracting some sceptics in the region as a security alliance rather than an economic development assistance alliance—which China’s engagement in the region seems to be.
Speaking on Australia’s ABC Radio’s Pacific Beat program on the eve of Blinken’s visit to Fiji, Mihai Sora, Research Fellow from Sydney’s Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, said though the influence of China in the region will be of key importance for US diplomats, Pacific leaders will have other security concerns.
y“What the US needs to be aware of is that Pacific Island countries do not automatically see China or closer relations with China as a strategic threat the way the US might or the way the QUAD group might like discussing it,” he said.
“It’s also wise for the US to include on the agenda items that Pacific countries have identified as priorities for them.” He argues that security issues for the South Pacific are climate change, natural disasters and COVID that Pacific leaders would like to address during the talks.
During Blinken’s stop-over in Suva he met with Fiji’s acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and had a virtual meeting with 18 other Pacific leaders. However, the Suva-based South Pacific Forum—which coordinates development activities in the region—was not invited for the meeting. US aid and involvement in the Pacific has been minimal and the last high-level visit of any kind was the 2012 trip to Rarotonga of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
“A decade between visits shows a high-level indifference”, notes Micheal Fields co-editor of New Zealand based ‘The Pacific Newsroom’. He adds that concern has mounted after recent riots in the Solomon Islands in the wake of its switch in diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China.
“Beijing appears now to have strengthened its hand in Honiara. While China has been slow to get significant aid to eruption damaged Tonga, they will still beat the United States to it.” The Tongan capital Nuku’alofa is already home to a large and modern Chinese Embassy, he points out.
To coincide with Blinken’s visit to the Pacific, the US State Department announced that they will establish a new embassy in Honiara and has already spent $12.4 million to lease space for it. The US operated an embassy in the Solomon Islands for five years before closing it down in 1993.
In a notification to the Congress, the State Department said the Solomon Islanders cherished their history with Americans on the battlefields of World War II, but that the US was in danger of losing its preferential ties as China “aggressively seeks to engage” elite politicians and businesspeople in the Solomon Islands.
However, if the US is going to promote democracy in the South Pacific, they would have to take a stand on independence for New Caledonia from French rule. The third and final referendum conducted there in December has been condemned as a fraud by Kanaky independence groups.
The Pacific Civil Society Organisation (PCSO) groups have accused the French state of “colonial manoeuvring in the middle of a health crisis” to gain a “premeditated outcome”. In a statement they said the referendum was not consultative and it did not serve the “common good of the Kanaky population, who exercised their right to not participate in the pseudo-referendum”.
Right across the South Pacific the failure of COP-26 has been criticised as reflecting rich countries’ disregard for the Pacific.
“We are on the frontline of climate change; we have rising seas, we have ocean acidification which affects our fish and the life of the ocean,” said Reverend James Bhagwan, the general secretary of the Suva-based regional Pacific Conference of Churches in an interview on the eve of COP-16.
“We have extreme weather events now regularly, and the category five cyclones which, in the past, would be the exception to the rule for us, now are the baseline for our extreme weather events. And so, you just pray that either it goes past, or it drops enough when it reaches us, and usually these systems do not affect just one country.”
In October, when the security pact between Australia, UK and US—AUKUS—was announced, the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) denounced it as a threat to the region and accused US’s QUAD ally Australia of abandoning its commitments under the South Pacific’s nuclear free accord—the Treaty of Rarotonga—by signing up to the controversial security pact. “(It)heightens risks for nuclear proliferation” in the region, PANG coordinator Maureen Penjueli said. “Security and defence pacts today are about the Pacific Ocean—which is our home—but it has never been (about) Pacific people.”
At the Pacific Leaders meeting, Blinken announced a commitment to deeper economic integration including measures to open market access for agricultural commodities from the islands. “It’s about connecting our countries together, deepening and stitching together different partnerships and alliances”, he said.
Regarding climate change, Blinken announced plans to divert substantial portions of the US$150 billion announced at COP26 last year to the Pacific and plans to make shared investments in decarbonisation and clean energy. Blinken stated that the US was committed to reducing regional vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 February 2022]
Photo: The Chinese naval amphibious dock landing ship Wuzhishan is seen berthing in the Nuku’alofa Port, Tonga on February 15, 2022. Credit: CCTV-7 official WeChat account.
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