After a decade of neglect, and in some cases mockery, alliance repair in the Pacific Islands will not be achieved by policy shift alone
CLEVELAND QLD – We in the south-western Pacific find ourselves in a volatile regional situation that we have not seen since 1942 and where we are unsure of precisely, or even generally, of what might happen.
Perhaps our first problem is that we do not fully understand the intentions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the effective government of China.
What we do know is that the CCP through president Xi Jinping is in firm control of the country and that Xi, providing he makes no significant strategic errors, will remain in place for the predictable future.
It is not quite the same in Russia, where Vladimir Putin, unlike Xi, has decided upon expansion through invasion and ‘hot war’.
In both countries, the consent of the people for what the leadership decides is not required and, indeed the population is not fully informed of even monumental events, especially where they may reflect poorly on the leadership.
In Russia, however, Putin’s impetuousness in invading Ukraine without just cause led him into a grim strategic place and quite likely a parlous political position.
He underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance, he miscalculated the West’s willingness to engage and he overestimated the calibre of his own military.
He also clearly believed that his previous outcomes in Chechnya, Syria, Georgia and Crimea offered him a playbook that would carry the day. He conveniently ignored Afghanistan.
In considering his future, it seems to me that ‘Good night, Putin,’ is well placed on the list of possibilities.
By contrast, Xi’s strategy is gradualist and built on commerce and diplomacy. It has not been reliant on military force or force of any kind and is quite distinct from the strategy of Japan in the 1930s.
In that case, brutal force was used to seize control of large parts of China and Japanese forces moved swiftly through south-east Asia getting as far as what is now Myanmar and Indonesia.
But Japan made a huge strategic misstep in December 1941 when, in a stealthy aerial attack on Hawaii, it engaged militarily with the USA and at the same time began to blaze a trail through the South West Pacific to within sight of Port Moresby.
Perched precariously beneath this military might was the notion of an Asian ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’ in which colonised Asians were meant to welcome the removal of British, Dutch, French and other colonial powers and allow them to be replaced by Imperial Japan.
What lessons can we draw from this? Firstly, don’t bite off more that you can chew. Second, don’t make assumptions. Third, think through all possible consequences. Fourth, define fallbacks in case your plans don’t work. Fifth, invest in soft power before trying the hard stuff. Finally, take your time.
China learned those lessons a long time ago. No wonder it seemed less than enthusiastic about Mr Putin’s bloodthirsty adventure in Ukraine.
And, as we observe the steadily growing contest between China and the West for influence in the Pacific Islands, now openly declared as the Chinese foreign minister makes an extraordinary 10-day trip covering most Pacific Islands nations.
Wang Yi came armed with a vision and a plan that he would have ideally have liked Pacific Island leaders to approve, but patience for China is a proverbial strategic virtue.
'Patience is power; with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown,' is one apt Chinese Proverb. 'Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect,' is another.
And, in terms of its global contest with the USA for top country status, another proverb comes to mind: 'Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself’.
In that context, it was nice for foreign minister Senator Wong that her visit to Fiji was associated with most of the leaders’ reluctance to sign up to China’s agenda, but, unlike Putin, the Chinese understand the long game.
That said, Wong’s visit to Fiji was an important sign to a region the Coalition government had done so much to alienate and her words, especially about the importance of addressing climate change, immediately began to redress the previous disconnection.
The Labor government has come to office with a number of programs to improve relationships with the Pacific Islands. Action to ease entry to Australia will be another winner when it is legislated.
After a decade of neglect, and in some cases mockery, repairing the alliance will not be achieved by policy shift alone.
In the Pacific Islands more than most places personal relationships count for much.
These take longer to build. But a good start has been made and, for the first time in a decade, there is contrary strategy to that of China’s alive in the region.