That the Pacific islands region will be the theatre of action in the next big global race for geopolitical hegemony is not a question of if as much as it is of when. And that when may be soon. Once it breaks out, the race could stay a cold war for a long time, with all sorts of posturing from all parties, or it could escalate into a full blown battle. No matter how it finally turns out, the next big theatre for the big powers’ global machinations will be the Pacific and its epicenter could well be Fiji’s capital Suva.
At the turn of the millennium, this twenty first century was touted as the century of the Asia Pacific. The promise was great: the Pacific Rim countries’ confidence brimmed powered by their blitzing growth rates, the Asian tigers were on a roll, the Pacific islands were redrawing the extents of sovereign oceanic territories as new mineral discoveries were being made on land and the seabed.
The first decade of this century saw sustained forays by the Asian giants into the Pacific islands region, establishing new outposts in tiny island nations, helping build infrastructure and doling out loans and grants with a firm eye on the vast natural resources that the islands are thought to possess. All this happened as the Pacific islands’ traditional western world partners were progressively downsizing their long held commitments to the islands.
Throughout the first decade of this century, China had a fairly open run of the Pacific Oceanic region. It upped its financial assistance and infrastructure building programmes around the region in schemes and arrangements that were different from the ones Pacific island governments were used to when such assistance came from Western friends.
Pacific islands leaders spoke approvingly of China’s ‘no strings attached’ approach to aid, in marked contrast to the West’s more structured and highly conditions-based manner of dealing with assistance programmes. This was enticement enough for most Pacific island countries to happily get into bed with China for several ‘development’ initiatives in return for poorly documented (at least in the media) concessions in tapping natural resources and fisheries.
Simultaneously, political developments like those in Fiji forced leaderships to evlove strategies like Fiji’s ‘look North policy’ where almost every new realm of economic and developmental activity became closely aligned to China, Korea and several other countries of the Pacific Rim, gaining precedence over traditional ties to Australia and New Zealand.
China has played its game in the Pacific cleverly. It has employed what commonly goes for ‘soft power’ to win influence. It has extended the hand of unconditional friendship and one cannot say that there has been coercion or threatening of any sort. That is one of the reasons why its influence has grown so rapidly over such sweeping swathes of the Pacific – under the radar as it were.
Meanwhile, the United States was busy with its endless war mongering in the Middle East for the better part of the past two decades and all but ignored China’s growing influence in the Pacific islands region. As if awoken suddenly from a deep slumber, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a knee jerk statement during one of her Pacific whistle stop tours a few years ago that the US would not “cede” territory to anybody – obviously implying that it wouldn’t take China’s machinations in the region lying down.
As the world now progresses towards the middle of this century’s second decade, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is the century of the Asia Pacific for many more reasons than those that were touted at the turn of the millennium. And some of these reasons are undoubtedly a cause for worry – not just for the region but also for the world.
China has already begun protesting against the US’ planned joint exercises in the Pacific this year that involves some 22 nations including several of the Pacific Rim including Australia and New Zealand and even distant powers like Russia. China has pointedly been excluded from these exercises that will include a range of nuclear submarines besides other sophisticated naval hardware and armaments.
China is also dealing with a number of more regional geopolitical and territorial problems – particularly the one involving the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Philippines has a strong US connection for historical reasons. This is one instance of how these local problems have the potential to polarise the region across the two superpowers vying for the region’s favours.
The joint naval exercises are obviously a bold and firm statement directed at China that the US wants to make that it well and truly means business in the region. In including 22 nations in its exercises including South Korea and Japan, it has thumbed its nose at the Asian superpower. In fact the US started this sort of posturing when it rebuilt its embassy in Fiji’s capital Suva.
In ages gone by, kings and emperors announced their hegemony by building towers and monuments on the territories they conquered. In modern times, countries can’t conquer and can’t build towers and monuments. Instead, they build embassies in the countries they want to win favour from in helping them expanding their influence. So when China rebuilt its embassy into a bigger facility in Fiji, the US decided to follow suit almost immediately.
For both countries realise the strategic, geopolitical importance of Fiji, just as colonial powers in bygone eras had. In any aggression that takes place in the Pacific Ocean in the near future, Fiji will undoubtedly catapulted into centre stage because of this.
What has begun as benign posturing could quite easily escalate into a cold war but could a cold war result in a full blown conflict? Consider this: the arms industry is the engine of the US economy. With action in the Middle East all but over, there are few places left for war mongering. The Pacific Ocean is an extremely suitable candidate to kickstart the arms industry and pull the country out of the recession. The development of a whole new suite of weapons suited for vast stretches of ocean would be a challenge worth pursuing and investing in. And thanks to the sparseness of the population, collateral damage would be negligible.
Fanciful though this may sound, the possibility can scarcely be discounted. Unfortunately for the Pacific islands and their citizens, they have already been reduced to pawns. Geopolitics may well grow to be a more pressing worry than the ravages of climate change.
First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as an opinion piece in ‘We Say’