Sat, Nov 09, 2019 - Page 8 News List

US and Australia too late on Pacific

By Bill Sharp

In his book Pivot, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell says that the US has overlooked the South Pacific and failed to see its geostrategic relationship to the US defense posture in Asia.

The US has moved from the “pivot” toward Asia to the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” making the geostrategic importance of the region all the more significant — and one, similar to World War II Japan, that China sees as crucial to its defense.

It should come as no surprise that China endeavors to drive a hole in the Indo-Pacific strategy that would allow it to clear a path from the South China Sea deep into the Western Pacific, just short of Hawaii.

Flipping both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati away from Taiwan indisputably advances that goal. Kiribati is only located 2,897km from Hawaii and once hosted a Chinese missile-tracking station.

Australia’s security is also seriously challenged by the proximity of Pacific island states where it is feared that China wants to build military installations. Not only did the Solomon Islands and Kiribati break relations with Taiwan, but Tuvalu could well follow suit.

Concern abounds that a domino effect could ensue that would form a crescent of Pacific island nations heavily influenced by China. Such an eventuality could cut off Australian shipping lines to the US and other destinations, plus serve as a roadblock to US troops potentially coming to Australia’s aid.

The US and Australia could have both put greater effort into addressing the needs of the region. Only when faced with the possibility of the Solomons ending relations with Taiwan did the US talk about reopening its embassy in the country. The US embassy in Papua New Guinea covers the Solomons and Vanuatu.

The late US and Australian effort to prevent the rupture in Solomon Islands-Taiwan relations was hypocritical. After all, both broke formal relations with Taiwan in order to establish them with China and were now pressuring the Solomons not to follow suit.

The US and Australian failure to address the No. 1 issue of South Pacific nations — climate change — also contributed to Honiara’s and Tarawa’s decisions to break relations.

Financially, during the period from 2011 to 2017, the US only contributed US$98 million to the region. Australia offered the most financial assistance of any country during the period with contributions totaling US$6.5 billion. However, there are long term, smoldering feelings about Australian arrogance and cultural insensitivity.

To persuade the Solomons to sever ties with Taiwan, China reportedly offered US$500 million in loans and grants. Much of the amount was to be devoted to infrastructure projects that would be carried out by China Civil Engineering Construction Corp, and a certain amount was said to go to individual politicians.

Opinion in the Solomons was divided, with 80 percent of the population and 50 percent of parliamentary members opposed to the switch in relations. Given the lack of parliamentary support, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare extended parliament’s recess until this month to prevent a vote against the decision. On the other hand, the Cabinet was strongly supportive, led by the newly elected, iron-willed Sogavare.

In 2017, Sogavare was forced out as prime minister amid allegations of accepting a Huawei bribe. He was re-elected to the post in April.

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