Ukraine: PNG & Pacific Islands need a rethink
16 March 2022
ADELAIDE - The idea that Pacific Island nations will not be dragged into the emerging great power conflict is risible. More poor joke than serious contention.
Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands are already involved, and there is no way out.
The war in Ukraine is clear and unequivocal evidence that the type of belligerent and militaristic autocracy we all fervently hoped was dead and buried after World War II is alive and well.
Europe has awoken from its dream (or delusion) that 'ever closer union' through the European Union would, somehow, inoculate Europe from future outbreaks of the rampant ultra-nationalism that spawned two vicious world wars.
It is a dream now shattered.
Meanwhile, an exhausted and divided USA is struggling to cope with the horrible implications of this most recent turn of events.
President Joe Biden is beset by Ukraine, his own party's serious divisions about the nature and extent of government in modern America, and the rampant ultra-nationalist and proto-fascist Trumpists who now dominate the once great Republican Party.
China too is caught in a dilemma.
On the one hand, quite recently it has found a friend in Vladimir Putin, a friendship that has no limits according to public statements by both parties.
On the other hand, Putin’s hopeless misjudgements over the invasion of Ukraine reveal him to be a major liability, not an asset.
Worse still, he is now pressuring China for both economic and military aid as his army succumbs to the courageous defiance of Ukrainians.
Putin seems willing to enter into effective vassalage to China in return for clinging to power.
If China gives Putin tangible support, then the USA and Europe will regard China as a de facto combatant in Ukraine and impose severe economic sanctions upon China.
The implications of this are very grave for China and, in fact, for all of us.
Make no mistake, the risk of Putin's Ukraine adventurism turning into a full scale global showdown between the world's democracies and the major autocratic powers is real.
The Chinese leadership knows this and will be asking itself if it is a risk it is prepared to take.
Its best bet is probably to try to act as an 'honest broker' in an effort to persuade Putin to enter into some sort of deal with the Ukrainian government whereby, in return for assurances Ukraine will not join NATO, the Russians will withdraw.
The problem is that Putin wants agreement for Russian to control the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.
The enraged Ukrainians are in no mood to agree to this.
This is a hideous mess with no obviously plausible exit strategy.
What has this to do with the Pacific? It means that an already tense situation will become even more febrile.
The Pacific generally will be a major battleground in any conflict between a resurgent China and the Western powers.
World War II provides plenty of evidence about what this can mean for small nations caught up in such a struggle.
The world's democracies will begin to see any major economic deal done with China as evidence of submission to vassalage, with the attendant risk that small nations doing this may find life becoming far more difficult in a host of subtle and not so subtle ways.
Simultaneously, the world's democracies are likely to offer the Pacific more and better support than has been the case in the past.
Over the last three weeks, the supposed geo-political certainties of the past 30 years have been discarded or disrupted to a huge degree.
There will be no return to the former status quo.
Pacific nations will need to engage in a major rethink and recalibration of their strategic approach to issues like commercial investment, foreign aid and, of course, military assistance.
Trying to play off China against the West is a game requiring extreme sophistication, insight, tact and diplomacy.
Small Pacific powers need to ask themselves not only whether they are able to do this, but whether it would be a good idea.
The price of failure in this game will assuredly be very high.
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