As this decade progresses, more and more learned Australians are joining a gospel choir. The melody they intend to sing is that we are at greater risk of a military conflict in our region than at any time since the end of World War II. While conveniently ignoring the brutality of the Korean War and our relatively limited entanglement in Vietnam, the bass and alto vocals are drowned out by the keening of sopranos and tenors. The latter support a bipartisan political system and electoral cycle which reinforce the creed that votes can only be secured by a hawkish approach to Defence. There are alternative choices to be made in the defence of our island continent but sitting on the fence, relying on Indo-Pacific nations to sing Kumbaya in harmony to support a mythical ‘international rules-based global order’, is no guarantee of Australia’s future security for the remainder of the century.
In his 5th century BC The Histories (of the Greek city states), Herodotus described how they united to repel the Persian Empire. His words provide an excellent description of successive Australian governments this century: ‘Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing.’ AUKUS, together with Prime Minister Albanese’s rapprochement with France, does, however, present an opportunity for Australia to radically influence the future security of the Pacific by encouraging America, supported by its two Security Council allies Britain and France, to cast off the yoke of post-war internationalism and choose a realpolitik path. A path down which the Chinese and Russian autocracies are far advanced and down which decades of well-intentioned words have not halted them.
The first quarter of the 21st century has seen the transition completed from the bipolar Cold War epoch of a nuclear-tipped strategic balance, through a brief unipolar USA hegemony, into the present—an economic influence-driven competition between the world’s two largest economies. Despite Russia’s highly disruptive military aggression in Eastern Europe, with its ongoing salutary effects on the global economy, it is across the broad Pacific Ocean where the future of global economic and military competition will be determined throughout the remainder of this Asian century.
‘Both America and China clearly understand and frame their relationship as competitive. But each party understands the causes of this very differently. For the United States, competition is driven by China’s challenge to American power and leadership, and its desire to change the international order. For Beijing, competition stems from American hegemonic pretensions during its inevitable decline.’ 
The world economy has expanded sixfold in the last half century, a period during which average per capita incomes tripled and China emerged as the only economic superpower to rival the USA. As of May 2021, the US led in terms of nominal gross domestic product (GDP), both countries accounting for almost 42% of the entire world’s GDP, while since 2017 China has led in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). According to estimates by the World Bank, China’s GDP was only 11% of the US in 1960, but by 2019 it was 67%. In terms of per capita income, the difference between these two countries remains high (a factor of six) due to China’s population being more than four times that of the US.
During a similar period post World War II, America took full advantage of a moribund period in international affairs to promote its model of a ‘Pax Americana’. Whenever and wherever necessary it employed military force and coercion. However, largely and very effectively it adopted a consensual approach, persuading others to join in collaborating in institutions offering their countries opportunities to prosper. In the economic sphere these included the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation. NATO, including its opportunistic expansion following the collapse of the USSR, is the outstanding military example of consensus building. Together, canny - if accidental - operation of whole-of-government diplomatic, military and economic levers permitted the USA to facilitate the accumulation of unchallenged wealth and power. By-products have been the ever-deepening connectivity and interdependency of market economies as well as liberal influences in social developments—civil and human rights, secularism and political freedoms of speech, the press and religion.
Liberal democracies like Australia have allied themselves with US interests. In tandem, each has advanced their own national interests, simultaneously providing a degree of legitimacy to Washington policies. The fall of the USSR and subsequent impoverishment and humiliation of a (perceived) once great empire added to the hubris of American success and its promotion of a ‘rules-based global order’. Many international leaders have joined the assenting chorus: Boris Johnson about the South China Sea said: ‘The United Kingdom plays a very important role, with friends and partners, the Americans, the Dutch, the Australians, the Indians many, many others, in upholding the rule of law, the international rules-based system on which we all depend.’ When in opposition, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong, highlighted that Brexit and President Trump exemplified that ‘the international rules-based order is under its greatest period of stress since the end of the Second World War’, although both had arisen through the exemplification of democracy. Politics aside, Senator Wong astutely observed (pre-AUKUS and a reinvigorated Quad) that China and the US will continue to ‘be both rule makers and rule takers’ in the international order.
It follows that how those two nations view their relationship will be key to the future of the Pacific. Their competition for influence in support of economic and military security is now playing out across the South West Pacific and among its island nations. In centuries to come, those who achieve unfettered control of the exploitation of the Pacific Ocean’s wealth will ensure their nations’ food security, mineral wealth and economic prosperity. All of the landmasses of the earth would fit comfortably in the Pacific—it is simply that large. Named as a version of the word ‘peaceful’ by Magellan in the 16th century, much of it remains to be explored. Its exploitation has really only just begun from industrial fishing to deep-sea mining. The ability to exercise sea control or even sea denial of swathes of the South West Pacific also guarantees access to the riches of Antarctica—a landmass bigger than either Europe or Australia.
The Pax Americana which has brought so much global cooperation is fast approaching, if not already past, its sell-by date. Competition over limited resources and tightly interconnected economies initially encouraged the growth of global cooperation. This century, competitive pressures have experienced exponential growth as technology has highlighted shortages and concentrations of essential resources. Microchips, rare earth minerals, lithium supplies etc. are now joined by the timely reminder from the war in Ukraine and the fragility of economic security in countries like Sri Lanka that people still need to eat and supplies of essentials like grain, petrol and water need to be secured. A tipping point is fast approaching when the global community will likely fracture further.
History repeats itself—resources competition is reaching a critical mass, creating the landscape for widespread political, economic, and social change. For those with the foresight to act, competition also provides the impetus to exploit opportunities, especially if actions relieve internal political and economic pressures. If this hypothesis is correct, the international rules-based global order will be a hindrance to those governments still in its philosophical thrall. Julius Caesar recognised this: ‘If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.’ The question is when, rather than if, one or other of the two economic superpowers will decide to reject the rules-based order in the Pacific. With the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s building and expansion program continuing unabated, time, geography and political philosophy are on China’s side. Washington cannot afford to remain reactive, and this is where Australia’s influence could be pivotal.
Michael Swaine has noted, ‘The greatest strategic challenge that Beijing’s naval modernisation will pose for the US and its allies over at least the next decade will occur in the Indo-Pacific, and especially in the Western Pacific within the first and second island chains,’ an area of vital interest to Australia’s security. Cooperation to address global issues has characterised the post-war world. For their future economic security the USA must recognise more of the same is not enough. They have already ceded too much influence, advantage, and leverage while ignorant of the threat of impending strategic competition. ‘Beijing seems to be quite clear about where the key arena of great power competition is located. It realises that the magic weapon for the long game between China and the United States lies in sustaining and expanding its economic integration with regional countries.’
The USA is in danger of losing its heavyweight economic and military belts without a fight. Henry Kissinger once noted, ‘It's never happened in history that every region in the world could affect every other region simultaneously. The Roman Empire and the Chinese empire didn't know much about each other and had no means of interacting. Now we have every continent able to reach every other.’ The Russo-Ukraine war with its effects on grain distribution are a contemporary example of Kissinger’s assessment. Today in the South Pacific Oceania, with its untold wealth and gateway to Antarctica, is in reality the last ‘continent’ to compete over.
Successive US and Western administrations have brought this situation on themselves. Supporting post-war decolonisation across the Pacific created many small new nations. With hindsight this irrationally gave often unsought for asymmetric political power to thousands of previously disenfranchised island peoples. They had no experience of, or readiness for, self-government and democracy. One could argue that those with benevolent colonial administrations had no need of either. Indeed Niue and the Cook Islands once begged for such protection. With independence has come an equal seat at the United Nations and, as observed, twixt the ‘two Chinas’ attempts to secure influence with temptations aplenty for individuals to be corrupted by international persuasion.
With the new Australian Labor government, there is a strong push in Foreign Minister Wong’s words to promote ‘genuine partnerships grounded in trust’. Yet with the egregiously short three-year Australian electoral cycle, Pacific Island leaders are entitled to view Australian promises through a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ lens, not something they may associate with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Equally, China does not come with any historical colonial baggage. To a degree, the recent acrimony among Pacific Island Forum nations is itself part of this post-colonial baggage, and the 1830s division of the region by a French naval officer seems now to be most convenient for any hegemonic Pacific ambitions China may hold. Jules Dumont d’Urville divided the islands and peoples of Oceania into three groups, ‘based partially on geography and partially on his dubious interpretation of ethnicities. That’s how we ended up with the concepts of Melanesia (“islands of Black people”), Micronesia (“small islands”), and Polynesia (“many islands”).’  Despite d’Urville’s arbitrary analysis, each country today identifies politically with one of the three groups. With the exception of Tonga, the development of all the island nations has seen the exploitative thumbprint of the Great Powers and more recently the United Nations.
In Micronesia, Kiribatigained its independence in 1979 from the United Kingdom, having been part of an 1886 Anglo-German division of the ‘unclaimed’ central Pacific; it suffered wartime migrations, repatriation and later nuclear tests by both the UK and US. Nauru was claimed as a colony by the German Empire and following the Great War became a League of Nations mandate under the auspices of Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Later occupied by the Japanese it then entered into United Nations trusteeship nominally administered by the same three powers but primarily Australia, before independence in 1968. Its phosphate wealth having been thoroughly exploited by the British, in 1989 Nauru took legal action against Australia in the International Court of Justice over Australia's administration of the island, in particular, Australia's failure to remedy the environmental damage caused by phosphate mining. Palau became a part of the Spanish East Indies in 1885, being sold only 14 years later to Germany as a part of German New Guinea. After Germany’s defeat, the islands became part of the Japanese-ruled South Seas Mandate by the League of Nations. In 1947, having seen conflict, Palau was made a part of the US-governed Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Palau gained independence in 1994 as a presidential republic under a 15-year Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States together with the Republic of the Marshall Islandsand the Federated States of Micronesia. The remaining financial provisions of a renewed compact expire in 2024.
The COFA illustrates the United Nations’ unbridled enthusiasm for democracy, prompted perhaps by the unfettered hubris of the West’s only superpower. The UN-US agreement obliged the US Government ‘to promote the development of the people of the Trust Territory toward self-government or independence as appropriate to the particular circumstances of the Trust Territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned’. Spain, Germany, Japan and the USA have all ruled the Marshall Islands, home of Bikini Atoll, before its republic was formed in 1979. Similarly, all four have had a stake in the four Federated States of Micronesia which gained their independence in 1990. Both nations have closer COFAs today with the US than Palau. Remarkably, in 2008 the Federated States of Micronesia had a higher per capita enlistment rate than any US state, and had more than five times the national per capita average of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan: 9 soldiers out of a population of 107,000.
Fiji, larger than most Pacific Islands in terms of geography and population, witnessed the development of European influence (and interference) through trade, religion, clan warfare, the creation of a kingdom, cotton, slavery and ultimately British annexation and colonial rule for four years short of a century until its 1970 independence. Almost 40 per cent of the 900,000-plus population are ethnic Indians, a result of the British policy to import labour to work the sugarcane fields. The resulting ethnic tensions led the new nation to experience military coups and political instability, while its suspension from the Commonwealth was only lifted in 2014.
Vanuatu saw Spain first claim the archipelago as part of the Spanish East Indies, while from 1906 until independence in 1980 the French and UK administered the islands through an Anglo-French Condominium. Although Captain James Cook was the first European to sight New Caledonia,it was the French who exploited the islands for the French slave trade, as a penal colony and later for huge nickel deposits. Despite this and three recent referendums, the territory remains French and is on the UN Decolonisation Committee’s list of Non Self-Governing Territories together with the other Pacific Island territories of French Polynesia, Guam, American Samoa, Tokelauand the Pitcairns. Both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have similarly been subject to the whims of the great and supranational powers as well as their near neighbour, Australia. Both were granted independence in the mid-1970s.
Among the Pacific Island nations there is only one that has escaped domination by the West and Imperial Japan. Although first encountering Dutch explorers in 1616 and Captain James Cook in 1773, 1774, and 1777,Tonga never came under European rule and indeed since 1845 has been an independent kingdom. The Tongan monarchy follows an uninterrupted succession of hereditary rulers from one family and enjoyed a treaty of friendship and protection with Britain between 1900 and 1970 before joining the Commonwealth and later the United Nations.
Niue, one of the world's largest coral islands, is self-governing in free association with New Zealand. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, the vast majority of Niueans live in New Zealand and all are citizens of New Zealand. Together with the Cook Islands, the Chiefs of Niue had sought the Protection of Queen Victoria’s ‘mighty hand, that Niue may hide herself in it and be safe’. Like the Cook Islands, Niue became a part of New Zealand in 1901 with self-government being restored as a result of a referendum in 1974, independence and remaining a protectorate being rejected. In 2017 the Cook Islands established the multiple-use marine protected area, Marae Moana, encompassing its entire exclusive economic zone. However, contentious debates over permissible future seabed mining for elements such a manganese provide an example of economic pressures on small island populations operating within a global economy with its global consumer demands. Samoa was a German colony until 1915 before being administered jointly by Britain and New Zealand until independence in 1962. Finally, Tuvalu. Midway between Hawaii and Australia, like Kiribati Tuvalu was a part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony from 1892 until independence in 1978 with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
The brief historical description of the affairs of the Pacific ‘nations’ described above highlights that America, Britain and France have and maintain a strong interest in all of them. In the 20th century, as internationalism developed through both the League of Nations and the United Nations, the influence of empire waned and Australia, as well as to a lesser extent New Zealand, also had key roles to play. As in so many areas of the globe, the actions, or inaction, of the British Empire’s administrators could have avoided 21st century conflicts or in this case competition across the South Pacific. One of the altos exercising some restraint on the fearful gospel choir’s chorus of war is retired Australian Army Colonel turned academic, Professor John Blaxland. He has noted: ‘Australia’s political leaders struggle to look beyond the tyranny of the urgent to manage the longer term issues. But some visionary leadership is needed.’
In 2016, Professor Blaxland proposed collegial engagement by Australia with a new forum for maritime cooperation including Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore as well as perhaps Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. More recently, Kevin Rudd suggested Australia might offer residents of smaller nations citizenship in exchange for control of their EEZs. In announcing Australia’s Pacific ‘Step-Up’ foreign policy, then-prime minister Scott Morrison accurately summarised that ‘our future is deeply intertwined with that of our Pacific family, and we have an abiding interest in the sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity of our region’. In 2020, Professor Blaxland promoted the idea of a ‘grand compact’. Noting that some of the smaller islands have had a cultural predisposition to work with Australia, he suggested creating compacts of association with offers that would benefit all parties in a substantive, respectful, inclusive and voluntary’ manner.
In a benign world without US-Chinese competition, such ideas, even given criticisms of neo-colonialism, may well have the time and goodwill on all sides in which to introduce them. They would no doubt also have emphasised the execution of newly developed climate-change and socially beneficial policies. That world simply does not exist. The Covid pandemic and its resulting social and economic effects—together with the relative neutrality of India within the Quad and the not dissimilar interests of Japan, South Korea and France in relation to China—offer an opportunity for America to lead a revolution in world affairs. Unless the USA intends to retreat to its pre-World War I insularity, then its declining influence in contrast with China’s resurgence in world affairs suggests the time for action is sooner rather than later.
Recent divisions among the Pacific Island nations are greater now than at any time since the formation of the South Pacific Forum a half century ago. The threat of nations like Kiribati to expand Chinese military influence well into the middle of the South Pacific is supported by the rapidly growing strength and capabilities of the PLA(N). Centred on the South-West Pacific and its island nations, bolstered by supporting and coordinated diplomatic, economic and social actions of Britain, France and Australia, a return of power politics reversing the instability created by a Pax Americana that enabled political power vacuums to form will necessarily combine the approach of talking softly while carrying (and being prepared to use) a big stick. This would include, if ultimately necessary, military intervention. The US is not unused to being accused of ‘flagrant violations of international law’ but as it demonstrated in Grenada through Operation Urgent Fury sometimes it is worth the criticism to snuff out a threat. Together, America, Britain and Australia with the support and influence of France still have the capability to seduce, cajole or insist that the Pacific Island nations submit to a future which sacrifices sovereignty for their citizens’ prosperity. A failure to act, to forward deploy allied forces into the South West Pacific, as China has done into the South China Sea, is to ignore the tide of history.
It is understandable that today’s incumbents of the White House, the Élysée Palace, 10 Downing Street or The Lodge in Canberra are unlikely to have the stomach to reverse the post-Cold War policy of international liberalism. Power politics relies on coercion, not cooperation. However unpalatable, to employ such an approach is pragmatically going to be the only way to halt the advance of China across the South West Pacific. To reverse China’s influence urgently requires the deliberate use of all elements of national power. Starting at home across AUKUS and French societies, the considered and powerful influences exerted by the Chinese Communist Party in education, information, technology and trade must be rooted out and reversed. Diplomatically, intense pressures permitting no misunderstandings must be placed on island politicians to accept a new Western hegemony. The benefits must be seen to be overwhelming—entitlements to citizenship, housing etc in exchange for territorial and maritime sovereignty. When necessary, targeted leaders will need to be suborned. A combined military theatre strategy incorporating widespread forward basing, integrating and synchronising military activities and operations in support of and together with the other instruments of national power will be immediately required. The internal wailing of the woke will need to be defeated by a strategic communications campaign demonstrating the despotism of the CCP while emphasising the beneficial and environmentally friendly nature of the new political landscape.
China’s long-term future vision is not to accept the status quo in the Pacific throughout the remainder of the 21st century. Reclaiming Western ‘great power’ sovereignty and dominance across the South West Pacific in the short term will lose us friends as well as probably subjecting Taiwan to earlier reunification intervention by the PRC than is presently intended. For the former, such as ASEAN members, economic pragmatism will overcome initial doubts. For the latter, the West must recognise the inevitability of geography; promoting a staged, peaceful and stable reunification would avoid either the tragedy of an unwinnable conflict or loss of international credibility and future influence. To do so through skilful diplomacy and under UN auspices would perhaps mollify geographically distanced global opposition. Securing the Pacific would secure the Antarctic and may also lead the Chinese to consider space to expand and exploit to their north, suggesting Russia look to their security in the east, relieving pressures on Europe. Determined action now throughout the South West Pacific may indeed avoid a future costly global war. The approaches to China since Nixon have been well intentioned but the results smack of appeasement. As Churchill once said when faced with a different ‘monstrous tyranny’: ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory … and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength”.’
Chris Watson transferred to the RAN from the Royal Navy. A Principal Warfare Officer and ex-Cold War diplomat in the USSR and Poland, he has been XO of HMS IRON DUKE and was the J2 Chief in Gibraltar during the First Gulf War. He has contributed to IO policy, planning and operations for the US, UK, NATO, WEU and the ADF ranging in diversity from the Global War on Terror, West Africa, the Balkans, Iraq, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. A graduate in Political Theory and Institutions, he has been awarded a US Meritorious Service Medal and the Malaysian Armed Forces’ Order of Valour. He is presently serving in the Strategic Policy Division.
The views in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any Australian agency or Australian Government policy or position.
2 How China views ‘strategic competition’ with the United States | The Interpreter (lowyinstitute.org) 2 Feb 2022 Michael Clark and Matthew Sussex
3 Purchasing power parity exchange rate is the rate at which the currency of one country would have to be converted into that of another country to buy the same amount of goods and services in each country.
7 Michael Swaine, ‘The PLA Navy’s Strategic Transformation to the “Far Seas”: How Far, How Threatening, and What’s to Be Done?’ in Eagle vs Dragon: How the U.S. and Chinese Navies Stack Up (nationaldefensemagazine.org)
8 Zhao Minghao, Senior Fellow, Center for American Studies – Fudan University Intensification of Sino-US strategic competition and regional security (unimelb.edu.au)