In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.
This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.
For the first ten years of my former academic career I wrote a considerable amount about post-authoritarian democratisation thanks to the mentors that introduced me to the subject and my personal interest in Argentina and the Southern Cone. I alternated this interest with writing about various security related topics like terrorism and comparative civil-military relations, with the natural overlap being that the move from dictatorship to democracy would of necessity entail a move away from state terrorism as practiced by the likes of the Argentine Junta and Pinochet’s regime in Chile and towards civil-military relations that were dominated by civilians, not murderous men in uniforms.
In recent times I have returned to these subjects with some friends and correspondents who share my interest in politics. The erosion of democracy in the US and elsewhere and the rise of national populism, rightwing extremism and various other forms of authoritarianism in places like Brazil, Hungary, Nicaragua, Serbia, Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela and countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” in the early 2010s has brought the subject of what democracy is and is not back to the forefront of my thought.
Most recently a good friend and I, both Americans by birth but living abroad by choice, have traded views on the rise of Trumpism and the sad turn towards MAGAist politics on the part of the Republican Party. Two areas that emerged as major sources of concern were the GOP stacking of local and state governments with MAGA believers pursuant to a program of gerrymandering and voter suppression that effectively disenfranchises demographic groups considered to be opponents of MAGA policy objectives (say, urban African Americans in Southern states or white liberals in Midwestern states). School boards, country clerk offices, electoral commissions–all of these have been targeted by the GOP as priority areas, something that Steve Bannon consistently advocated more than ten years ago, and in the measure that they have been successful (and they have in many instances) they have guaranteed Republican majorities in those states and localities. That it turn reinforces MAGA dominance over political discourse and practice in those parts of the country.
The second, deeper problem is abandonment of the notion that contingent political and economic compromise is at the heart of the democratic social contract. That causes political competition to be seen in zero-sum terms and opponents as adversary “others” who must be defeated at all costs and hopefully forever. It is this shift that lies at the root of the GOP turn to MAGA and the local take-over strategy.
Here is what I wrote to my friend when we discussed the issue. As friends often do in order to make a point, I began mine with an anecdote (my comment is edited and paraphrased for clarity):
“Two observations. 1) When I lived in Tucson in the late 80s-early 90s Mormons used to try to stack school boards and PTAs by running numerous candidates for every school in the district (in my case, the Amphi district where my kids attended primary and secondary school). This allowed them to shape individual and district-wide school policy wherever they won a majority of seats, but even as minorities they were influential in shaping school direction on things like prayer, the pledge of allegiance etc. This locally-focused “bottom-up” political strategy of organising to elect partisan adherents into grassroots, small-town offices was adopted by the GOP in subsequent decades and became a core strategic tenet in the 2010s. Rather than solely focus on federal-level offices, the Republican National Committee (RNC) also worked hard to stack local political decks with (increasingly MAGA) partisan adherents who then worked in unison to guarantee Republican dominance of state and federal electoral processes in their respective jurisdictions. That has produced permanently Red (GOP) electoral outcomes in states like Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Arkansas.”
“But there is more to this process than the “stacking” strategy, and we might call that 2) democratic socialisation. As (my friend) might recall, I was a student of the great generation of “transitologists” of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Schmitter, O’Donnell, Przeworski (all on my Ph.D. committee), Elster, Garreton, Rouquie, Stepan, Linz, Bobbio, et.al. One of the major points that they made was that democracy was the result of what was known as the mutual second-best game: no one could gain everything that they wanted all of the time in a competitive democracy, so instead everyone pursued “second-best” strategies based on mutual contingent compromise that allowed them to achieve some of their objectives some of the time. This turns out to be a Pareto optimal solution in game-theoretic terms since no one can achieve better individual outcomes without hurting those of others (where each has the ability to do so), and as an extensive form game where preferences and outcomes change based on prior outcomes, it laid the foundation for a durable compromise between class and non-class actors and their political representatives (as agents of sectorial interests).”
Of course, the democratic compromise only succeeds if it is respected and popular expectations are met with regard to it. If these are not met the compromise is broken, which paves the way for the imposition of zero-sum authoritarian solutions. That appears to be what has happened in, and to, the US.
“What the GOP stacking strategy has done, most negatively, is reject the notion of a political compromise (much less class compromise) grounded in mutual second best approaches to democratic competition. This is, to say the least, a profoundly authoritarian way of pursuing political interests and as such is inimical–and threatening–to democracy as a regime made up of institutions, norms and values. But it is where we are today, although I believe that the GOP may have taken a step too far in the dictatorial direction under Trump and will soon rue the day that it ever chose to go down the MAGA path because it has now become the province of sociopaths and charlatans.”
That is what has been lost in the US: the acceptance that democracy rests on a contingent economic and political compromise between the electorate and elites. Workers agree to accept capitalism in exchange for better wages, job security and living conditions, including educational opportunity and access to affordable housing, drinking water, transportation, power and the like. Elites agree to use a percentage of their pre-tax profits an/or increased corporate and individual taxation to provide the mass of wage-earners with the material conditions required for social peace. Regardless of partisan identity, governments mediate interests and administer the broad terms of the bargain.
That is a central feature. What brings this all together as a workable outcome over time is a regularly refreshed political bargain between agents of elites and workers in all of their guises–lobbies, unions, parties, non-profits, community organisations etc. They all have their specific interests that make for differences in priority and approaches to pursuing them. But they have a larger common interest in seeing the system work because it is the best guarantee that everyone comes away with something now and in the future. All political actors understand this and governments act accordingly.
Democracy may be transactional in practice but it is founded on a common understanding that the mutual-second best approach and contingent compromise are the best way to guarantee social peace. Needless to say, issues such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other instances of malicious “othering” are not reducible to game theoretic solutions, but the idea is to inculcate a polity with a political socialisation that places a premium on partisan and sectorial compromise and pursuit of mutual contingent consent as mainstays of both the political as well as social system. That in turn widens space for increased toleration of difference, horizontal solidarity networks between different groups of people, and inter-generational reproduction of political norms and value re-orientation focused on the mutual second best as the preferred collective outcome.
Needless to say this is just a distillation of what democracy is as a political form. It does not address the differences and relationship between procedural (electoral) and substantive (institutional, societal, economic) democracy. But is does reduce the concept to a fundamental core characteristic: contingent compromise.
The US is very far from this ideal at the moment, and even in places like Aotearoa understanding of these core concepts appears to have eroded considerably in recent years (perhaps as a result of the US influence on local political practice). In any event, rather than treat democracy as one means towards a desired partisan end, perhaps it is best for all to reflect on its intrinsic worth as the political aggregator of distinct and heterogenous material and ideological preferences in socially pluralistic societies.
The “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning and I resumed after a months hiatus. We discussed the PRC-Taiwan tensions in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit and what pathways, good and bad, may emerge from the escalation of hostilities between the mainland and island. You can find it here.
I have said this in other forums, but here is the deal:
PRC military exercises after Pelosi’s visit are akin to silverback male gorillas who run around thrashing branches and beating their chests when annoyed, disturbed or seeking to show dominance. They are certainly dangerous and not to be ignored, but their aggression is about signaling/posturing, not imminent attack. In other words, the behaviour is a demonstration of physical capabilities and general disposition rather than real immediate intent. If and when the PRC assault on Taiwan comes, it will not be telegraphed.
As for why Pelosi, third in the US chain of command, decided to go in spite of PRC threats and bluster. Along with a number of other factors, it was a show of bipartisan, legislative-executive branch resolve in support of Taiwan to allies and the PRC in a midterm election year. SecDef Austin was at her side, so Biden’s earlier claims that the military “did not think that her trip was a good idea” did not result in an institutional rupture over the issue. The show of unity was designed to allay allied concerns and adversary hopes that the US political elite is too divided to act decisively in a foreign crisis while removing a basis for conservative security hawk accusations in an election year that the Biden administration and Democrats are soft on China.
The PRC can threaten/exercise/engage indirect means of retaliation but cannot seriously escalate at this point. It’s launching of intermediate range ballistic missiles over Taiwan and into Japan’s EEZ as part of the response to Pelosi’s visit certainly deserves concerned attention by security elites, as it signals a readiness by the PRC to broaden the conflict into a regional war involving more than the US and Taiwan. But the PRC is too economically invested in Taiwan (especially in microchips and semi-conductors) to risk economic slow downs caused by disruptions of Taiwanese production in the event of war (which likely will be a protracted affair as Taiwan reverts to the “hedgehog” defence strategy common among island nations and facilitated by Formosa’s terrain), and it is not a full peer competitor with the US when it comes to the East Asian regional military balance, especially if US security allies join the conflict on Taiwan’s side.
The PRC must therefore bide its time and wait until its sea-air-land forces are capable of not only invading and occupying Taiwan, but be able to do so in the face of US-led military response across all kinetic and hybrid warfare domains. Pelosi’s visit was a not to subtle reminder of that fact.
So the visit, while provocative and an act of brinkmanship given the CCP is about to hold its 20th National Party Congress in which President Xi Jinping is expected to be re-elected unopposed to another term in office, was at its most basic level simply conveying a message that the US will not be bullied by the PRC on what was a symbolic visit to a disputed territory ruled by an independent democratic government.
For the moment the PRC must content itself with mock charges and thrashing the bush in the form of large-scale military exercises and some non-escalatory retaliation against the US and Taiwan, but it is unlikely to go beyond that at the moment. It remains to be seen if this sits well with nationalists and security hardliners in the CCP who may see what they perceive to be the relatively soft response as a loss of face and evidence of Xi’s lack of will to strike a blow for the Motherland when he has the chance and which could have also served as a good patriotic diversion from domestic woes caused by Covid and the ripple effect economic slowdown associated with it.
In that light, the Party Congress should give us a better idea if the factional undercurrents operating within the CCP will now spill out into the open over the Pelosi’s visit. If so, perhaps there was even more to the calculus behind her trip than what I have outlined above.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s two week foreign mission to Europe and Australia was by all accounts a success. She met with business and government leaders, signed and co-signed several commercial and diplomatic agreements including a EU-NZ trade pact, conferred with NATO officials as an invited participant of this year’s NATO’s Leader’s Summit, gave several keynote speeches on foreign policy and international affairs, and in general flew the Aotearoa flag with grace and a considerable dose of celebrity. As she wraps up her visit to Australia, it is worth noting that she gave different takes on foreign policy to different audiences. These may appear incongruous at first glance but in fact display a fair degree of strategic and diplomatic finesse.
In Europe she emphasized the commonality of shared values among liberal democracies across a range of subjects: approaches to trade, security, human rights, representative governance, the rule of law within and across borders, transparency and rejection of corruption, and the common threat posed to all of these values by authoritarian great powers that are trying to usurp the international order via persistent challenges and encroachments on international norms and institutions.
Towards the end of her trip while in Australia, she shifted tack and emphasized NZ’s “independent” foreign policy while dropping the value-based view of a global geostrategic contest marshalled along ideological lines.
Instead, she publicly decoupled the Ruso-Ukrainian war from broader geostrategic competition between democratic and authoritarian-led powers, treating Russian behavior as idiosyncratic rather than as a result of regime type. That framing of the conflict avoids messy arguments about domestic political legitimacy and its impact on great power rivalries. In doing so Ardern reaffirmed the independence of NZ’s foreign policy approach from those of larger Western allies while reducing the possibility of retaliation by the PRC on trade and other diplomatic fronts. The PRC is well aware of the reality of NZ’s recent strategic shift towards the West, but a public position that pointedly refuses to lump together PRC behavior with Russian aggression based on the authoritarian nature of their respective regimes gives NZ some time and diplomatic space in which to maneuver as it charts a course in the international transitional moment that it is currently navigating. That is a prudent position to take and hence a good diplomatic move assuming that the PRC reads the statement as NZ intends it to be read.
The strategy behind this approach–one that recognizes the larger ideological divide at play in international affairs but treats State actions as unique to individual national history and circumstances–might be called a “confronting coercive politics” approach. Allow me to explain.
Politics ultimately is about the acquisition, accumulation, administration, distribution, maintenance and loss of power. Power is the ability to make others bend to one’s will. It can be persuasive or coercive in nature, i.e., it can induce others to act in certain ways or it can compell them to act under (threat of) duress .
Power is relative and variable across several dimensions, including economic, political, military, personal, class, social (including gender and reputational/”influencer” in this day and age), cultural, intellectual and physical. Power is wielded directly or indirectly as a mixed bag of “hard” and “soft” attributes, a dichotomy that is well mentioned in the international relations and foreign policy literatures. Hybrid combinations of soft and hard power have led to “smart” and “sharp” power subsets depending on the emphasis given to one or the other basic trait.
The harder the exercise of power, the more coercive it is. Conversely, the more persuasive the way in which power is welded, the “softer” it is. Moreover, soft power can give way to hard power if the former is unsuccessful in accomplishing desired objectives, and soft power can be used as a follow up to the exercise of hard power. For example, “dollar diplomacy,” whereby large states fund development projects in small states on generous terms, is a form of soft power that can turn into hard power leverage once it becomes debt diplomacy in the form repayment conditions for those projects.
The exercise of State power has been institutionalized, codified and regulated over the years in a variety of contexts, including international relations and foreign policy. That is designed to strip inter-state relations of more overtly coercive approaches in favor of more consensus or compromise-oriented forms of engagement. However, in recent years the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world-in-the-making has led to international norm erosion and a diminishing of international rule and law enforcement. That has produced a “back to the future” scenario where the international context has regressed to a modern version of the anarchic state of nature that Hobbes warned about in Leviathan. Emerging or restored great powers, particularly but not exclusively the PRC and Russia, have rejected international norms and laws in favor of a “might makes right” approach to international differences. Geopolitical coercion is at the heart of their international perspectives, which challenges the basic rules, norms and institutions of the liberal international order.
The turn towards more coercive forms of international politics is mirrored in the domestic politics of many States, including those led by democratic regimes. It is this–the emergence of coercive politics as a core feature of domestic and international governance–that is the focus of Ardern’s bifurcated foreign policy pronouncements in recent days. Her government understands that “liberal” governance is more than free and fair elections and respect for human rights. It is based on tolerance, compromise and mutual contingent consent between individuals, factions, parties and States.
Being unable to control the domestic regimes that govern States, Ardern’s bifurcated approach to NZ foreign policy (I would not call it a doctrine or anywhere close to one), is focused on countering coercive politics in international affairs. The general value principles of liberalism are upheld, but individual relations with other states, particularly important trade and security partners, are treated with a mix of value-based and pragmatic considerations, with pragmatism prevailing when strategic interests are at stake.
This approach allows NZ to broadly critique a trade partner’s human rights record while increasing or maintaining its trade with that partner in specific commodities under the argument that engagement with NZ’s values is better than isolation from them.
In other words, adherence in principle to liberal international values cloaks realistic assessments of where Aotearoa’s material interests are woven into the global institutional fabric. That may be cynical, hypocritical or short-sighted in its read of how the global order is evolving, but as a short-term diplomatic stance, it splits the difference between adherence to principle and amoral commitment to self-interested practice.
The repeal of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court is part of a broader “New Conservative” agenda financed by reactionary billionaires like Peter Thiel, Elon Mush, the Kochs and Murdochs (and others), organised by agitators like Steve Bannon and Rodger Stone and legally weaponised by Conservative (often Catholic) judges who are Federalist Society members. The agenda, as Clarence Thomas openly (but partially) stated, is to roll back the rights of women, ethnic and sexual minorities as part of an attempt to re-impose a heteronormative patriarchal Judeo-Christian social order in the US.
Worse, the influence of these forces radiates outwards from the US into places like NZ, where the rhetoric, tactics and funding of rightwing groups increasingly mirrors that of their US counterparts. Although NZ is not as institutionally fragile as the US, such foreign influences are corrosive of basic NZ social values because of their illiberal and inegalitarian beliefs. In fact, they are deliberately seditious in nature and subversive in intent. Thus, if we worry about the impact of PRC influence operations in Aotearoa, then we need to worry equally about these.
In fact, of the two types of foreign interference, the New Conservative threat is more immediate and prone to inciting anti-State and sectarian violence. Having now been established in NZ under the mantle of anti-vax/mask/mandate/”free speech” resistance, it is the 5th Column that needs the most scrutiny by our security authorities.
Selwyn Manning and I discussed the upcoming NATO Leader’s summit (to which NZ Prime Minister Ardern is invited), the rival BRICS Leader’s summit and what they could mean for the Ruso-Ukrainian Wa and beyond.
In the latest episode of AVFA Selwyn Manning and I discuss the evolution of Latin American politics and macroeconomic policy since the 1970s as well as US-Latin American relations during that time period. We use recent elections and the 2022 Summit of the Americas as anchor points.
Coming on the heels of the recently signed Solomon Islands-PRC bilateral economic and security agreement, the whirlwind tour of the Southwestern Pacific undertaken by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi has generated much concern in Canberra, Washington DC and Wellington as well as in other Western capitals. Wang and the PRC delegation came to the Southwestern Pacific bearing gifts in the form of offers of developmental assistance and aid, capacity building (including cyber infrastructure), trade opportunities, economic resource management, scholarships and security assistance, something that, as in the case of the Solomons-PRC bilateral agreement, caught the “traditional” Western patrons by surprise. With multiple stops in Kiribati, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, PNG, Vanuatu and East Timor and video conferencing with other island states, Wang’s visit represents a bold outreach to the Pacific Island Forum community.
A couple of days ago I did a TV interview about the trip and its implications. Although I posted a link to the interview, I thought that I would flesh out was what unsaid in the interview both in terms of broader context as well as some of the specific issues canvassed during the junket. First, in order to understand the backdrop to recent developments, we must address some key concepts. Be forewarned: this is long.
China on the Rise and Transitional Conflict.
For the last three decades the PRC has been a nation on the ascent. Great in size, it is now a Great Power with global ambitions. It has the second largest economy in the world and the largest active duty military, including the largest navy in terms of ships afloat. It has a sophisticated space program and is a high tech world leader. It is the epicenter of consumer non-durable production and one of the largest consumers of raw materials and primary goods in the world. Its GDP growth during that time period has been phenomenal and even after the Covid-induced contraction, it has averaged well over 7 percent yearly growth in the decade since 2011.
The list of measures of its rise are many so will not be elaborated upon here. The hard fact is that the PRC is a Great Power and as such is behaving on the world stage in self-conscious recognition of that fact. In parallel, the US is a former superpower that has now descended to Great Power status. It is divided domestically and diminished when it comes to its influence abroad. Some analysts inside and outside both countries believe that the PRC will eventually supplant the US as the world’s superpower or hegemon. Whether that proves true or not, the period of transition between one international status quo (unipolar, bipolar or multipolar) is characterised by competition and often conflict between ascendent and descendent Great Powers as the contours of the new world order are thrashed out. In fact, conflict is the systems regulator during times of transition. Conflict may be diplomatic, economic or military, including war. As noted in previous posts, wars during moments of international transition are often started by descendent powers clinging or attempting a return to the former status quo. Most recently, Russia fits the pattern of a Great Power in decline starting a war to regain its former glory and, most importantly, stave off its eclipse. We shall see how that turns out.
Spheres of Influence.
More immediate to our concerns, the contest between ascendent and descendent Great Powers is seen in the evolution of their spheres of influence. Spheres of influence are territorially demarcated areas in which a State has dominant political, economic, diplomatic and military sway. That does not mean that the areas in question are as subservient as colonies (although they may include former colonies) or that this influence is not contested by local or external actors. It simply means at any given moment some States—most often Great Powers—have distinct and recognized geopolitical spheres of influence in which they have primacy of interest and operate as the dominant regional actor.
In many instances spheres of influence are the object of conquest by an ascendent power over a descendent power. Historic US dominance of the Western Hemisphere (and the Philippines) came at the direct expense of a Spanish Empire in decline. The rise of the British Empire came at the expense of the French and Portuguese Empires, and was seen in its appropriation of spheres of influence that used to be those of its diminished competitors. The British and Dutch spheres of influence in East Asia and Southeast Asia were supplanted by the Japanese by force, who in turn was forced in defeat to relinquish regional dominance to the US. Now the PRC has made its entrance into the West Pacific region as a direct peer competitor to the US.
Peripheral, Shatter and Contested Zones.
Not all spheres of influence have equal value, depending on the perspective of individual States. In geopolitical terms the world is divided into peripheral zones, shatter zones and zones of contestation. Peripheral zones are areas of the world where Great Power interests are either not in play or are not contested. Examples would be the South Pacific for most of its modern history, North Africa before the discovery of oil, the Andean region before mineral and nitrate extraction became feasible or Sub-Saharan Africa until recently. In the modern era spheres of influence involving peripheral zones tend to involve colonial legacies without signifiant economic value.
Shatter zones are those areas where Great Power interests meet head to head, and where spheres of influence clash. They involve territory that has high economic, cultural or military value. Central Europe is the classic shatter zone because it has always been an arena for Great Power conflict. The Middle East has emerged as a potential shatter zone, as has East Asia. The basic idea is that these areas are zones in which the threat of direct Great Power conflict (rather than via proxies or surrogates) is real and imminent, if not ongoing. Given the threat of escalation into nuclear war, conflict in shatter zones has the potential to become global in nature. That is a main reason why the Ruso-Ukrainian War has many military strategists worried, because the war is not just about Russia and Ukraine or NATO versus Russian spheres of influence.
In between peripheral and shatter zones lie zones of contestation. Contested zones are areas in which States vie for supremacy in terms of wielding influence, but short of direct conflict. They are often former peripheral zones that, because of the discovery of material riches or technological advancements that enhance their geopolitical value, become objects of dispute between previously disinterested parties. Contested zones can eventually become part of a Great Power’s sphere of influence but they can also become shatter zones when Great Power interests are multiple and mutually disputed to the point of war.
The interplay of States in and between their spheres of influence or as subjects of Great Power influence-mongering is at the core of what is known as strategic balancing. Strategic balancing is not just about relative military power and its distribution, but involves the full measure of a State’s capabilities, including hard, soft, smart and sharp powers, as it is brought to bear on its international relations.
That is the crux of what is playing out in the South Pacific today. The South Pacific is a former peripheral zone that has long been within Western spheres of influence, be they French, Dutch, British and German in the past and French, US and (as allies and junior partners) Australia and New Zealand today. Japan tried to wrest the West Pacific from Western grasp and ultimately failed. Now the PRC is making its move to do the same, replacing the Western-oriented sphere of influence status quo with a PRC-centric alternative.
The reason for the move is that the Western Pacific, and particularly the Southwestern Pacific has become a contested zone given technological advances and increased geopolitical competition for primary good resource extraction in previously unexploited territories. With small populations dispersed throughout an area ten times the size of the continental US covering major sea lines of communication, trade and exchange and with valuable fisheries and deep water mineral extraction possibilities increasingly accessible, the territory covered by the Pacific Island Forum countries has become a valuable prize for the PRC in its pursuit of regional supremacy. But in order to achieve this objective it must first displace the West as the major extra-regional patron of the Pacific Island community. That is a matter of strategic balancing as a prelude to achieving strategic supremacy.
Three Island Chains and Two Level Games.
The core of the PRC strategy rests in a geopolitical conceptualization known as the “three island chains” This is a power projection perspective based on the PRC eventually gaining control of three imaginary chains of islands off of its East Coast. The first island chain, often referred to those included in the PRC’s “Nine Dash Line” mapping of the region, is bounded by Japan, Northwestern Philippines, Northern Borneo, Malaysia and Vietnam and includes all the waters within it. These are considered to be the PRC’s “inner sea” and its last line of maritime defense. This is a territory that the PRC is now claiming with its island-building projects in the South China Sea and increasingly assertive maritime presence in the East China Sea and the straits connecting them south of Taiwan.
The second island chain extends from Japan to west of Guam and north of New Guinea and Sulawesi in Indonesia, including all of the Philippines, Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo and the island of Palau. The third island chain, more aspirational than achievable at the moment, extends from the Aleutian Islands through Hawaii to New Zealand. It includes all of the Southwestern Pacific island states. It is this territory that is being geopolitically prepared by the PRC as a future sphere of influence, and which turns it into a contested zone.
The PRC approach to the Southwestern Pacific can be seen as a Two Level game. On one level the PRC is attempting to negotiate bilateral economic and security agreements with individual island States that include developmental aid and support, scholarship and cultural exchange programs, resource management and security assistance, including cyber security, police training and emergency security reinforcement in the event of unrest as well as “rest and re-supply” and ”show the flag” port visits by PLAN vessels. The Solomon Island has signed such a deal, and Foreign Minister Wang has made similar proposals to the Samoan and Tongan governments (the PRC already has this type of agreement in place with Fiji). The PRC has signed a number of specific agreements with Kiribati that lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive pact of this type in the future. With visits to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor still to come, the approach has been replicated at every stop on Minister Wang’s itinerary. Each proposal is tailored to individual island State needs and idiosyncrasies, but the general blueprint is oriented towards tying development, trade and security into one comprehensive package.
None of this comes as a surprise. For over two decades the PRC has been using its soft power to cultivate friends and influence policy in Pacific Island states. Whether it is called checkbook or debt diplomacy (depending on whether developmental aid and assistance is gifted or purchased), the PRC has had considerable success in swaying island elite views on issues of foreign policy and international affairs. This has helped prepare the political and diplomatic terrain in Pacific Island capitals for the overtures that have been made most recently. That is the thrust of level one of this strategic game.
That opens the second level play. With a number of bilateral economic and security agreements serving as pillars or pilings, the PRC intends to propose a multinational regional agreement modeled on them. The first attempt at this failed a few days ago, when Pacific Island Forum leaders rejected it. They objected to a lack of detailed attention to specific concerns like climate change mitigation but did not exclude the possibility of a region-wide compact sometime in the future. That is exactly what the PRC wanted, because now that it has the feedback to its initial, purposefully vague offer, it can re-draft a regional pact tailored to the specific shared concerns that animate Pacific Island Forum discussions. Even if its rebuffed on second, third or fourth attempts, the PRC is clearly employing a “rinse, revise and repeat” approach to the second level aspect of the strategic game.
An analogy the captures the PRC approach is that of an off-shore oil rig. The bilateral agreements serve as the pilings or legs of the rig, and once a critical mass of these have been constructed, then an overarching regional platform can be erected on top of them, cementing the component parts into a comprehensive whole. In other words, a sphere of influence.
Western Reaction: Knee-Jerk or Nuanced?
The reaction amongst the traditional patrons has been expectedly negative. Washington and Canberra sent off high level emissaries to Honiara once the Solomon Islands-PRC deal was leaked before signature, in a futile attempt to derail it. The newly elected Australian Labor government has sent its foreign minister, sworn into office under urgency, twice to the Pacific in two weeks (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) in the wake of Minister Wang’s visits. The US is considering a State visit for Fijian Prime Minister (and former dictator) Frank Baimimarama. The New Zealand government has warned that a PRC military presence in the region could be seriously destabilising and signed on to a joint US-NZ statement at the end of Prime Minister Ardern’s trade and diplomatic junket to the US re-emphasising (and deepening) the two countries’ security ties in the Pacific pursuant to the Wellington and Washington Agreements of a decade ago.
The problem with these approaches is two-fold, one general and one specific. If countries like New Zealand and its partners proclaim their respect for national sovereignty and independence, then why are they so perturbed when a country like the Solomon Islands signs agreements with non-traditional patrons like the PRC? Besides the US history of intervening in other countries militarily and otherwise, and some darker history along those lines involving Australian and New Zealand actions in the South Pacific, when does championing of sovereignty and independence in foreign affairs become more than lip service? Since the PRC has no history of imperialist adventurism in the South Pacific and worked hard to cultivate friends in the region with exceptional displays of material largesse, is it not a bit neo-colonial paternalistic of Australia, NZ and the US to warn Pacific Island states against engagement with it? Can Pacific Island states not find out themselves what is in store for them should they decide to play the Two Level Game?
More specifically, NZ, Australia and the US have different security perspectives regarding the South Pacific. The US has a traditional security focus that emphasises great power competition over spheres of influence, including the Western Pacific Rim. It has openly said that the PRC is a threat to the liberal, rules-based international order (again, the irony abounds) and a growing military threat to the region (or at least US military supremacy in it). As a US mini-me or Deputy Sheriff in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia shares the US’s traditional security perspective and emphasis when it comes to threat assessments, so its strategic outlook dove-tails nicely with its larger 5 Eyes partner.
New Zealand, however, has a non-traditional security perspective on the Pacific that emphasises the threats posed by climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, poor governance, criminal enterprise, poverty and involuntary migration. As a small island state, NZ sees itself in a solidarity position with and as a champion of its Pacific Island neighbours when it comes to representing their views in international fora. Yet it is now being pulled by its Anglophone partners into a more traditional security perspective when it comes to the PRC in the Pacific, something that in turn will likely impact on its relations with the Pacific Island community, to say nothing of its delicate relationship with the PRC.
In any event, the Southwestern Pacific is a microcosmic reflection of an international system in transition. The issue is whether the inevitable conflicts that arise as rising and falling Great Powers jockey for position and regional spheres of influence will be resolved via coercive or peaceful means, and how one or the other means of resolution will impact on their allies, partners and strategic objects of attention such as the Pacific Island community.
In the words of the late Donald Rumsfeld, those are the unknown unknowns.