The PRC’s Two-Level Game.

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.

Strategic Balancing.

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.

Vietnamese Oil Rig in a contested zone.

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.

Media Link: China in the Pacific.

I got up early to do a TV interview about the recent (and ongoing) trip by the PRC foreign minister around the SW Pacific looking to sign bilateral and multilateral agreements. I never got to discuss the concept of “sphere of influence” as it applies to the power play, nor the fact that the territorial size and resource exploitation potential of any potential PRC-Pacific Island community multilateral economic and security agreement would mark a major shift in the Pacific strategic balance of power. But I did get to try and put the recent moves in broader context, which is unusual for a TV talking head. You can see the interview here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast returns.

After a brief hiatus, the “A View from Afar” podcast is back on air with Selwyn Manning leading the Q&A with me. This week is a grab bag of topics: Russian V-Day celebrations, Asian and European elections, and the impact of the PRC-Solomon Islands on the regional strategic balance. Plus a bunch more. Check it out.

Approaching storm over the horizon.

The Solomon Islands and PRC have signed a bilateral security pact. The news of the pact was leaked a month ago and in the last week the governments of both countries have confirmed the deal. However, few details have been released. What we do know is that Chinese police trainers are already working with the Solomons Island police on tactics like crowd control, firearms use, close protection and other operating procedures that have been provided by the Australian and New Zealand police since the end of the RAMSI peace-keeping mission in 2017. More Chinese cops are to come, likely to replace the last remnants of the OZ and NZ police contingents. What is novel is that the agreement allows the PRC to deploy security forces in order to protect Chinese investments and diaspora communities in the event of public unrest. That is understandable because the PRC is the biggest investor in the Solomon Islands (mostly in forestry) and Chinese expats and their properties and businesses have regularly been on the receiving end of mob violence when social and political tensions explode.

Allowing Chinese security forces to protect Chinese economic interests and ex-pats on foreign soil has brought a new twist to the usual security diplomacy boilerplate, one that could be emulated in other Pacific Island states with large Chinese populations. Given the large amounts of PRC economic assistance to Pacific Island states before and during the Belt and Road initiative, which has often been referred to as “dollar,” then “debt” diplomacy because it involves Chinese financing and/or the gifting of large developmental projects to island states in which imported Chinese labor is used and where it is suspected that PRC money was passed to local officials in order to grease the way for contracts to be let, the possibility of this new type of security agreement is now firmly on the diplomatic table.

Also very worth noting is that the SI-PRC agreement gives the Chinese Navy (PLAN) berthing and logistical support rights during port visits, with the Chinese ugrading the port of Honiara in order to accommodate the deep draft grey hulls that it will be sending that way. This has raised fears in Western security circles that the current deal is a precursor to a forward basing agreement like the one the PRC has with Djibouti, with PLA troops and PLAN vessels permanently stationed on a rotating basis on Solomon Islands soil. Given that the Solomon Islands sit astride important sea lanes connecting Australia (and New Zealand) with the Northwestern Pacific Rim as well as waters further East, this is seen as a move that will upset the strategic balance in the Southwest Pacific to the detriment of the Western-dominant status quo that currently exists.

The fear extends to concerns about the PRC inking similar agreements with Fiji (with whom its already has a port visit agreement), Samoa and Tonga. The PRC has invested heavily in all three countries and maintains signals collection facilities at its embassies in Suva and Nuku’alofa. A forward basing agreement with any of them would allow the PLAN to straddle the sea lanes between the Coral Sea and larger Pacific, effectively creating a maritime chokepoint for commercial and naval shipping.

Needless to say, the reaction in Australia, NZ and the US has been predictably negative and sometimes borderline hysterical. For example, recent reports out of Australia claim that Chinese troops could be on the ground in the Solomons within a month. If true and if some Australian/NZ commentators are correct in their assessments, the only implicit options left to reverse the PRC-Solomons security agreement in the diminishing time window before the PRC establishes a firm foothold in Honiara is either by fomenting a coup or by direct military intervention. Opposition (and pro-Taiwan) Malaitan militias might be recruited for either venture (the Solomons switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019, something that was widely opposed on the island of Malaita). However, PM Sogavare already has PRC police in country and can invoke the new deal to get rapid response PRC units on the ground to quash an uprising or resist foreign military intervention. So the scene is set for a return to the nation-wide violence of two decades ago, but in which contending foreign intervention forces are joined to inter-tribal violence.

The agreement is also a test of NZ and OZ commitments to the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination. Left-leaning pundits see the deal as benign and Western concerns as patronizing, racist and evidence of a post-colonial mentality. Right-leaning mouthpieces see it as the first PRC toe- hold on its way to regional strategic domination (hence the need for pre-emptive action). Both the New Zealand and Australian governments have expressed concerns about the pact but stopped short of threatening coercive diplomacy to get Sogavare to reverse course and rescind the deal. Australia has sent its Minister for Pacific affairs to Honiara to express its concern and the US has sent a fairly high (Assistant Secretary) level delegation to reaffirm its commitment to regional peace and stability. NZ has refrained from sending a crisis diplomatic delegation to Honiara, perhaps because the Prime Minister is on an Asian junket in which the positives of newly signed made and cultural exchanges are being touted and negative developments are being downplayed. But having been involved with such contingency-planning matters in my past, intelligence and military agencies are well into gaming any number of short to medium term scenarios including those involving force, and their contingency planning scenarios may not be driven by respect for norms and principles involving Solomon Islands sovereignty, self-determination and foreign policy independence.

Conspicuous by their absence have been the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). The former is the regional diplomatic grouping founded in 1971 and Headquartered in Suva, Fiji. It is comparable to the Organization of American States (OAS), Organization of African Unity (OAU) or Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). It has several security clauses in its charter, including that 2000 Biketawa Declaration that sets the framework for regional crisis management and conflict resolution and which was invoked to authorise the Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2003-2017.

The latter was formally incorporated in 1988 (Fiji was admitted in 1996) as a Melanesian anti-colonial solidarity organization and trade and cultural facilitator involving PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Kanak National Liberation Front (FLINKS) in New Caledonia. It subsequently admitted observer missions from Indonesia (now Associate Member), Timor Leste and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua.

Currently headquartered in Port Villa, Vanuatu, under Fiji’s leadership in the late 2000s it attempted to re-position itself as a regional security intervention body for Melanesia, (prompted by the unrest in the Solomons and Papua New Guinea in the early 2000s). That initiative never prospered and the MSG remains as more of a symbolic grouping than one with serious diplomatic weight in spite of the signing of an MSG regional trade agreement in 1996 (revised in 2005) and Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama’s attempts to make it a vehicle for loftier ambitions.

Neither agency has weighed in at any significant length on the agreement or the response from the traditional Western patrons. That may have something to do with the PRC’s dollar diplomacy shifting regional perspectives on diplomacy and security, or perhaps has to do with long-standing unhappiness with the approaches of “traditional” Western patrons when it comes to broader issues of development and trade (since the PC-SI security deal also includes clauses about “humanitarian” and developmental assistance). The MSG silence is significant because it has the potential to serve as a regional peace-keeping force deployed mainly to deal with ethnic and tribal unrest in member states as well as inter-state conflict, thereby precluding the need for non-Melanesian powers to get involved in domestic or regional security matters. Either way, the absence of the Solomon Island’s closets neighbours in a glaring omission from diplomatic discussions about how to respond to the agreement.

That is a good reason for the PIF and MSG to be engaged in resolving the inevitable disputes that will arise amid the fallout from the PRC-SI security agreement. It could involve setting boundaries for foreign military operations (such as limiting foreign military presences to anti-poaching, anti-smuggling or anti-piracy missions) or limits to foreign military basing and fleet numbers. It could involve negotiating MSG control over domestic public order measures and operations in the event of internal unrest, including those involving the PRC and Western traditional patrons. The main point is that regional organizations take the lead in administering regional security affairs covering the nature and limits of bilateral relations between member states and extra-regional powers (including traditional patrons as well as newer aspirants).

Whatever happens, it might be best to wait until the agreement details are released (and it remains to be seen if they will be) and save the sabre rattling for then should the worst (Western) fears are realized. That sabre rattling scenario includes a refusal to release the full details of the pact or dishonesty in presenting its clauses (especially given PRC track record of misrepresentations regarding its ambitions in the South China Sea and the nature of the island-building projects on reefs claimed by other littoral states bordering it). Of course, if the agreement details are withheld or misrepresented or the PRC makes a pre-emptive move of forces anticipating the OZ/NZ coercive response, then all bets are off as to how things will resolve. The window of diplomatic opportunity to strike an equitable resolution to the issue is therefore short and the possibility of negative consequences in the event that it is not loom large over the Pacific community and beyond.

In other words, it is time for some hard-nosed geopolitical realist cards to be placed on the diplomatic table involving interlocutors big and small, regional and extra-regional, without post-colonial patronizing, anti-imperialist “whataboutism” or yellow fever-style fear-mongering. Because a new strategic balance is clearly in the making, and the only question remaining is whether it will be drafted by lead or on paper.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on Israel/Palestine and Samoa’s political power struggle.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.

In Samoa, a fight for democracy.

New Zealand coverage of the attempt to overturn the results of Samoa’s national elections in April, when the opposition FAST Party won a one seat majority in parliament thanks to support from an independent MP, has largely been mindlessly anodyne. Take for example the unfortunate choice of words in the RNZ report (re-published in the NZ Herald) on the contested election: “the FAST party of Fiame Naomi Mataafa was expected to secure a majority of seats, overthrowing the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party and making Fiame Samoa’s first female prime minister.”

There is no “overthrowing” going on in Samoa, at least not by FAST. That would be a coup, putsch or “golpe,” and that would involve a violent blocking of the constitutionally legitimate and electorally validated political succession process.

Instead, what has happened so far is a (yet unfinished)) constitutional and therefore legal rotation or succession in elected government between the defeated incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the victorious former opposition, a splinter break-off from the long ruling government of Mr. Malielegaoi (the irony of the party name will be ignored here). After dominating Samoan politics since 1982 and with the last 23 years in power in its present form (where it continuously placed legal obstacles to the formation of competing political parties), the HRPP and PM Malielegaoi are a lame duck caretaker administration until the new parliament is convened and the FAST government installed. After a series of legal challenges by HRPP involving a provision that 10 percent of parliament be female (which would mean adding one more appointed female seat to parliament and create a 26-26 MP deadlock that forces a new election), the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposition that no new seat need be created and validated the results of the April 9 polls, opening the way for the sitting of a new parliament no more than 45 days after the election. That was to happen today.

Instead, the Malielegaoi government has blocked the move to sit a new parliament as per the Court’s order.

This is a troublesome move. Blocking rotation in government after a legitimate election is a very real attempt to overthrow the voter’s mandate. On Saturday Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi, the Head of State appointed by the Malielegaoi government in 2017, declared that parliament would not re-open today. He stated the reasons for his decision would be given “in due course” and left Apia for his home village several hours drive away. On Sunday the Samoan Supreme Court heard an emergency challenge to the Head of State’s proclamation and found it to be unlawful. The Samoan Attorney General, representing the caretaker administration, walked out on the proceedings. Because it was held on a Sunday, PM Malielegaoi claimed that it contravened “God’s will” and was therefore illegal (there is no constitutional provision against holding court hearings on Sundays). The Supreme Court rejected the accusations of irregularity and reiterated that the new parliament should be seated on the basis of the April 9 results. Instead, the Speaker of the House, a member of the HRPP, shuttered the doors of the Maota Fono, claiming that he follows the orders of the Head of State, not the Supreme Court. Coincidentally or not, the website for the Samoan Observer, the country’s main media outlet, has gone off-line. The stage is set for an authoritarian usurpation.

To be clear: political democracy is based on the principle that election losers accept adverse results in exchange for getting to compete again at pre-set intervals under fair conditions. Rotation in government is considered to be an intrinsic part of democratic governance and intrinsically good because it allows opposition parties to learn how to govern and allows former government parties to refresh and gain perspective when in opposition, all while vying for electorate support. That competitive pressure is considered to be what keeps the political process healthy if not entirely honest. 

In other words, either one accepts the principle of the honest loss or one is anti-democratic. The April elections were honest and the HRPP lost–by a very small margin, but it lost nevertheless. Hence, for the HRPP the choice today is to be democratic or dictatorial. Unhappily, what is appears to be going on in Samoa is not an attempted coup by the FAST party after its victories in the April election and in the Supreme Court. Instead, it is a variation on an (attempted) “constitutional” coup carried out by the defeated HRPP.

That brings up the issue of force and outside intervention. The Samoan Police have surrounded the parliament grounds (where FAST are staging a sit-in), but it remains unclear as to who they are are loyal to. Perhaps under the circumstances we should be thankful that Samoa does not have a military. But if the Police are loyal to the Head of State (who is a former police officer as well as an ordained minister) rather than the Samoan Constitution, then the authoritarian “auto-coup” could be successful.

There is more. Under the terms of the 1962 Friendship Treaty signed between Samoa and New Zealand, NZ is duty-bound to come to Samoa’s aid in a time of crisis. As unpalatable that may be given NZ’s history with Samoa and however unforeseen this particular crisis may be, it falls within the scope of the Treaty. But its invocation depends on an official request from Samoa so the issue is who has the legal right to issue that request should they deem it necessary to do so.

Given the circumstances, a legal request can only come from the legitimately elected government that has Samoan Supreme Court sanction. That would be a FAST-led coalition. But it runs the risk of provoking large scale unrest between political factions if the Samoan Police side with HRPP and people decide to take matters into their own hands with street violence. That then raises the question of the nature of any NZ intervention if the Friendship Treaty is invoked. Given NZ-Samoan history, a minimal amount of force should be used, with the NZDF (if need be) only used in a support role for NZ Police intervention units.

Most importantly (and pressingly), diplomacy can avoid invocation of the Treaty and thereby help avert intervention. MFAT needs to be on the case now because it is quite possible that other foreign actors with vested interests in Samoa seize the opportunity to extend their influence in it by favouring one side or another in the impasse. So diplomatic urgency is required for three compelling reasons: 1) to avoid invocation of the Friendship Treaty as a means of resolving a political dispute; 2) to preserve Samoan democracy in the face of authoritarian resistance from within; and 3) to prevent extra-regional (and non-democratic) actors to influence how the political process plays out.

The Samoan diaspora can help in this regard by signalling support for democracy. Although Samoan expats cannot vote in their home elections (thanks to Tess Newton Cain for the head’s up), it would be helpful if expats voiced support for the political system rather than a partisan preference given a contentious outcome. That could assist in easing partisan and social conflict in their homeland.

At the end of today the new FAST majority was sworn into office by the Supreme Court in the Supreme Court building rather than parliament because they were locked out of the Folo by the Clerk and Speaker of the House, both HRPP minions. The farce–some say typical of recent Samoan politics– is now about symbolism rather than the substance of political change, as if the location of the investiture ceremony and who gets to sit where when it comes to exercising governmental authority matters for the exercise of elected sovereign power. To his credit, the sitting Police Commissioner has taken an agnostic stance about the political shenanigans and seems disposed to adhere to constitutional edicts and respect for the rule of law. If that is the case, no foreign intervention is necessary and Samoan bureaucrats do not need to look to a particular building for their instructions when it comes to the continuity of State business. All that is needed now for a peaceful transition that reaffirms Samoans commitment to democracy is for foreign governments to recognize the realty of the situation. Word to the wise: It is all over but the HRPP shouting, and the sooner that they shut up or are ignored, the better for Samoa things will be.

As is often said: time to move on. The next days will tell if Samoa takes a political step forward or backwards. Best then, to illuminate and encourage the path ahead.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on NZ foreign policy independence reframed.

Nanaia Mahuta, NZ’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave a speech that was notable for two things. On the one hand she spoke of diversifying NZ’s trade relations away from the domination of one market (read: the PRC). On the other hand she expressed a desire to return the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network to its original charter rather than allow it to be used a diplomatic foil by the other partners in the network (which was brought about by a couple of critical 5 Eyes statements on events in the PRC). To be clear: the 5 Eyes is an intelligence network, not a diplomatic coalition or military-security alliance, so using it for diplomatic signalling and posturing is folly. Not only is NZ the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners to Chinese retaliation, but the move to use 5 Eyes as a diplomatic tool was an initiative that came from a Trump administration that was uninterested in the complexities of the relations US partners maintained with China and very much interested in pressing the partners to bend a knee to Trump’s desire to squeeze China on all fronts.

In other words, it was an absurd and unnecessary initiative that complicated things for the spy agencies involved and undermined the positions of the diplomats who normally would conduct such types of public diplomacy. As it turns out, Winston Peters and Ron Mark of NZ First were the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence at the time of the first US request to use the 5 Eyes to issue joint condemnatory statements about Chinese behaviour in Hong Kong and vis a vis the Uyghers in Xinjiang Province. They wanted to keep in the US good graces and so acceded to the request, something that Mahuta agreed to with regards to a second statement very early on in her tenure as Foreign Minister. But after very blunt warnings from the Chinese about NZ’s meddling in its internal affairs, it is clear that a more calibrated, balanced approach was required. Her speech delivered on that score.

It did so because it counterpoised the need to return to the original 5 Eyes charter with a declaration of intent with regard to diversifying trade away from the PRC. There is irony in the move because it was under the 5th Labour government where NZ’s trade dependence on the PRC was deepened and consolidated via the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (in 2008). Thus, while former PM Helen Clark may have played a role in getting NZ to push to restore the 5 Eyes charter due to her statement in September 2020 that NZ was losing its independence within it, she also was being rebuked for ignoring the concerns of many that the asymmetric nature of the NZ-PRC FTA would come back to haunt NZ on both the economic and diplomatic fronts.

The speech went on to reaffirms NZ’s foreign policy independence and its commitment to multilateralism, democratic values and a South Pacific orientation. Coming just before a visit by the Australian foreign minister, it served as a framing device for bilateral discussions. More generally, it helped re-frame how NZ proposes to approach the world over the next few years. The key issue will be how it implements, much less achieves, what is essentially a new balance in the conduct of NZ foreign affairs.

In any case, here is the podcast with Selwyn Manning on the subject.

A note on the US navy ship visit.

So the US has agreed to send a ship to the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November. That means that it has accepted New Zealand’s non-nuclear policy and will send a ship that is neither nuclear armed or propelled. It may have taken 33 years for it to finally loosen up on its “neither confirm or deny” policy when it comes to nukes on board, but the US realises that the geopolitical and strategic environment in which that policy was adopted is long gone and has been replaced by another in which continuing to adhere to it is a matter of hubris that is both churlish and counterproductive. Given the pressing realities of Chinese strategic competition in the Western Pacific and elsewhere, the US needs to consolidate its alliance commitments in the region. If acknowledging New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance is one way of doing so, than any loss of face is well worth it.

Pundits on the NZ Left and Right have claimed that NZ has “won” in its dispute with the US and that it is a great “victory” for the anti-nuclear movement that took to the waters of the Waitemata Harbour three decades ago. Quite frankly, I find the crowing about victory to be infantile because there were many other factors at play and decisions such as this are not a simple matter of win or lose. Moreover, with the Wellington and Washington agreements and RNZN participation in the annual US-led RIMPAC naval exercises, the bilateral military relationship between New Zealand and the US is pretty much back to first-tier partner status regardless of the symbolic stand-off about nukes. Add to that the fact that US nuclear submarines regularly patrol around (and some suggest in) NZ territorial waters, and the reality is that NZ’s non-nuclear status does not impede US naval operations near its shores regardless of what is said in public.

The issue of the US “relenting” is all about context. First off, the strategic environment has changed considerably. It is well known that US surface ships, with the exception of carriers, are all diesel power and as of 1991 have not carried tactical nuclear munitions. Even if resurgent, Russia no longer poses the global nuclear threat to the US that it once did, and although China has emerged as the giant’s rival in the last two decades, it still has limited capacity to project blue water force deep into the Pacific in a measure that would constitute a direct challenge to US maritime interests. However, the Chinese are working hard to address that imbalance, evident in their land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and their overtures to South Pacific island states with regard to naval port visits and fishing rights, something that the US views with concern and which in part motivates Vice President Biden’s whirlwind tour of the region this week. Likewise, the re-establishment of the Russian Pacific Fleet also signals that the era of US maritime supremacy is now subject to contestation, so the US well understands that it needs all of its military allies working off of the same page when it comes to these new challenges. Recognizing the RNZN on its anniversary is one small way of doing so.

More importantly, from the moment President Obama stepped into the Oval Office he made de-nuclearization a cornerstone of his foreign policy. The Iran nuclear deal, the increased sanctions levied on North Korea, the slowing of advanced weapons sales to Pakistan, the repeated attempts to engage in bilateral strategic ballistic missile reductions with Russia–all of these efforts were undertaken as part of Obama’s vision of a safer world. It is therefore completely logical given his commitment to a world without (or at least with lesser amounts of) nuclear weapons, that under his administration the US would relent on the issue of NZ’s non-nuclear policy. In fact, it can be argued that the Obama administration wants to highlight its agreement with the principled commitment to a non-nuclear stance by authorising a US ship visit on a ceremonial occasion with symbolic significance given that several other nuclear powers will be among the 30 odd nations sending naval vessels to the celebrations–including its new competitors.

I have publicly suggested that the US send the USS Mercy, a hospital ship home ported at Pearl Harbour. It would symbolise the humanitarian aspects of naval deployments that the RNZN claims as one of its core missions and would defuse the grounds for opposition of protesters who see US warships as imperialist death platforms. Surprisingly, this suggestion has been ridiculed by some (most on the Right) who say that a ship without guns is not “exciting” and is not a real naval vessel. Given that navies around the world have tenders, tankers, tugs, intelligence collection vessels and assorted other non-combat ships, it strikes me as strange that some people think that the US decision to send a navy ship is a victory for NZ and yet that victory must be confirmed with a warship visit as opposed to something with a non-combat purpose. Given that the NZDF spends much time publicising its non-combat, peacekeeping and humanitarian roles, I would have thought that a visit by a US naval vessel whose purpose was something other than kinetic operations would be perfectly suited for the occasion.

In the end the decision by the US to accept the invitation to send a ship to the RNZN anniversary celebrations was a triumph of good sense over bureaucratic intransigence within the US defense establishment, pushed as much by the president’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world as it is by the evolving strategic realities in the Western Pacific Rim that require the US to consolidate its military alliance commitments in the region. Some in NZ may think that it “won” and the US lost with its change of posture, but a simple glance at geopolitical realities suggests that it was not the NZ non-nuclear movement that forced the change so much as it is the influence of much broader factors in a context when haggling about nukes on board is about as relevant to modern naval warfare as is arguing about the relative merits of spinnakers and mainsails.

Fiji’s strategic pivot.

Last week Fiji took delivery of a shipment of Russian weapons that were “donated” by Russia pursuant to a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in February 2015. The Fijians say that the weapons are needed by Fijian peacekeepers in places like the Middle East because what they currently have in their inventory is obsolete. The shipment includes small arms (squad) weapons, two trucks, tear gas, other non-lethal munitions and possibly one or more helicopters. The shipment will formally be unveiled in February in front of a Russian delegation that will include military trainers who will remain in Fiji to instruct Fijian military personnel in their proper usage.

Fijian opposition figures believe that the shipment is illegal because it was not approved by Parliament and that it could be used against domestic opponents of the current, military-backed government. Let me briefly outline the issues.

The shipment is perfectly legal as it is not part of a Treaty that needs parliamentary ratification. Plus, it is a “donation” of military aid so it does not need parliamentary approval.

The opposition is correct to be concerned about the “dual use” potential of the weapons. Squad weapons, tear gas and non-lethal munitions can be used in peacekeeping but can also be used as instruments of crowd control at home. Given the Fijian Military Forces history, that is a very real possibility.

The arms shipment could trigger an arms race with Tonga, which also has a military and is a rival of Fiji. The Tongans are not likely to view the shipment kindly even if it does not specifically include naval equipment. Squad weapons can and are used by navies as a matter of routine, and the introduction of military helicopters into a regional rivalry is bound to cause alarm in the Kingdom.

Although Fijian military inventories may well be obsolete (meaning Vietnam era US weapons), most UN peacekeeping missions are armed by the UN using NATO-standard equipment. That includes small arms and troop carriers used in “blue helmet” operations.  Thus the claim that the Russian arms are needed for peacekeeping is debatable at best.

The MOU with Russia also outlines military educational exchanges. These follow on a similar program with the Chinese military (PLA). The Chinese also have funded and undertaken numerous infrastructure projects such as port dredging and road building that have a parallel “dual use” potential: they can be used for civilian and military purposes alike.

Given the above, it is reasonable to speculate that the Chinese and/or Russians may receive forward basing rights in Fiji in the not to distant future. Under the “Looking North” policy Fiji has clearly pivoted away from its traditional Western patrons (Australia, NZ and the US) and towards others that are less concerned about the status of Fijian democracy (such as it is, and it is not very much). Given these weapons transfers plus bilateral military education and training exercises with China and Russia, the path is cleared for the two countries to use Fiji as a means of projecting (especially maritime) power in the South Pacific. The Chinese are already doing so, with Chinese naval ships doing regular ports of call in Suva. After years of neglect, the Russian Pacific fleet has resumed long-range patrols. So the stage is set for a deepening of military ties with a basing agreement for one or both.

The Chinese and Russians are enjoying some of their best bilateral relations in decades. It is therefore possible that they may be working in coordinated, cooperative or complementary fashion when it comes to their overtures to the Fijians. Both seek tourism opportunities as well as preferential access to fisheries in and around Fijian territorial waters, so their non-military interests converge in that regard, which may limit the regional competition between them.

It is clear that post-election Fiji has moved from a “guarded” democracy in which the military acts as a check on civilian government to a soft authoritarian regime in which the executive branch supersedes and subordinates the legislature and judiciary with military connivance. Instead of going from a “hard” dictatorship to a “hard” democracy, Fiji has moved  from a “hard” dictatorship to a “soft” one (for those who know Spanish and the regime transitions literature, the move was from a “dictadura” to a “dictablanda” rather than to a “democradura”).

Some of this is by constitutional design (since the military bureaucratic regime dictated the current constitution prior to the 2014 elections), while other aspects of the slide back towards dictatorship are de facto rather than de jure (such as the speakers’ order to reduce the amount of days parliament can sit. The speaker is a member of the ruling party yet holds a position that is supposed to be apolitical). Then there are the strict restrictions on press freedom and freedom of political participation to consider. Attacks on the Methodist Church, arrests of civil society activists and claims of coup plotting by expats and local associates contribute to concerns about the state of governmental affairs. Add to that the fact that the first Police Commissioner after the election resigned after military interference in his investigation of police officers implicated in torture, and then was replaced by a military officer (against constitutional guarantees of police and military independence) while the policemen were given military commissions (which insulated them from prosecution thanks to provisions in the 2014 constitution), and one gets the sense that Fiji is now a democracy in name only.

None of this bothers the Russians or the Chinese, both of whom resisted the imposition of sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup (to include vetoing UN Security Council resolutions barring Fiji from peacekeeping operations).

All in all, the outlook is two-fold, with one trend a continuation and the other one new. Fiji is once again becoming authoritarian in governance, this time under electoral guise and a facade of constitutionalism. In parallel it has decisively turned away from the West when it comes to its diplomatic and military alignments. This turn is a direct result of the failed sanctions regime imposed on Fiji after the 2006 coup, which was too porous and too shallow to have the impact on Fiji that was hoped for at the time of imposition. The result is a greatly diminished diplomatic influence and leverage on the part of Australia, New Zealand and (to a lesser extent) the US and the rise of China, India and Russia as Fiji’s major diplomatic interlocutors. Factor in Fiji’s disdain for the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and its continued attempt to fashion the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as a counter to it, and the makings of a regional transitional moment are clear.

The sum result of this is that the strategic balance in the South Pacific is clearly in flux. Given the US “pivot” to Asia and the reassertion of its security ties with Australia and New Zealand, that is bound to result in increased diplomatic tensions and gamesmanship in the Western Pacific in the years to come.

Blog Link: Could Fiji Emulate Singapore?

Although we in NZ have been preoccupied with our own national election,  Fiji had one a few days earlier that arguably is far more important when it comes to that country’s long-term prospects. Much has been written about this foundational election and the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but in this 36th Parallel analysis I consider the possibility that Fiji may see Singapore as a developmental model worth emulating.

It is not as crazy an idea as you might think at first glance.