Action in Oceania, view from the West
London—A Brit or American reading The Economist last month might have briefly seen an article on the outgoing president of the Federated States of Micronesia standing up to China. The Guardian readers might have caught a glimpse of a piece detailing the millions of dollars now on their way to the Indo-Pacific.
Most probably, they heard about AUKUS when leaders of Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. met to finalize a submarine deal, and a niche audience got their weekly updates on the desperate state of the earth’s climate challenges – this time from Samoa.
They then would have been puzzled about the Australian Prime Minister’s assertion that Australia didn’t guarantee his country would fight to defend Taiwan in the event China invades. Why sign up for military agreements designed to curb another country in the first place if you aren’t prepared to go all in?
But it’s actually so much worse. The overwhelming majority of citizens in the West Pacific’s power players aren’t even aware of the status of the Compacts of Free Association—never mind that Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia all negotiated more favorable deals.
In some respects, that’s totally understandable. Ukraine and its knock-on effects are literally much closer to home in Europe. The U.S. media is also more accustomed to reporting on Russia. And each member of AUKUS has its own local political scandals polluting the media landscape and people’s brain space.
First-world problems tend to come first in the first world – who knew?!
Still, there has been a renewed interest in the Pacific countries on this side of the globe for the same reason. It’s not breaking news, but alarm bells are ringing much louder than before.
The thought of China invading Taiwan seems more real now that Xi is meeting with Putin and quietly taking sides. China’s attempts to flood the Pacific countries with cash are more unnerving than ever.
All across the Pacific, great power competition means much more development and many more financial choices. The Pacific countries can pick carefully among them and the Western nations can always play the “better the devil you know” card.
The tiny Pacific nations would rather a great-power rivalry did not suffuse their region, but few can envision realistic alternatives. Western powers can easily justify the millions spent here and their local presses give them a free pass. It may not seem like it in the Pacific countries, but the AUKUS countries are indeed desperate to hold them close and fear their vulnerabilities.
For all the bickering and political partisanship, there’s huge bipartisan agreement on support for the Pacific countries. Unlike certain parts of Africa, the Pacific isn’t even close to being considered a lost cause or place with “nowhere else to go.” Quite the opposite.
To be more controversial, when the aid money is, effectively, flushed down the toilet or thrown up the wall here, shoulders are shrugged. An unspoken agreement has emerged between the UK and the Pacific: we’ll give you all the financial support we can squeeze out and we’ll turn the other way when you spend it.
Nobody will be any wiser because, unlike the U.S. and Australia, the number of Brits craving a regular Pacific island digest is pretty slim.
Moreover, U.K.’s Conservative Party government, held hostage by its right flank, already got its wish in slashing the foreign aid budget. It’s too busy standing guard to make sure closer agreements with Europe aren’t signed (which they inevitably will be).
Right-wing foreign policy hawks in the U.S. are fixated on China as a talking point, too. There’s no military budget deep enough when it comes to keeping China out.
The Republican candidates running for office in 2024 also need China to hit Biden over the head. When it comes to the Pacific countries, you won’t hear either party complaining. Just don’t ask them about statehood for the territories.
The Australian political right needs immigration as an issue in opposition – and certainly has it. But spending money on its neighbors’ development can and has helped keep immigration levels down.
What’s more, many of Australia’s naturalized Pacific island citizens tend to hold more conservative social views. They can be useful come election time. It would be all too easy to write about the poor Pacific always coming in last place. But it may also be inaccurate.
Are Pacific countries really getting the sloppy leftovers, be it from Japan, China, the U.K., the U.S., Australia or New Zealand? It’s not an easy argument to make on three other continents.
Fissures are beginning to show in the West’s support for Ukraine. The same can’t be said for its opposition to China in the Pacific. As long as it remains a threat, the money will keep coming.
Of course, fixing the dying ocean and its species being wiped out might have to wait, but the Pacific should bear one thing in mind: for all the cash bribes, China and its citizens aren’t much interested in saving the climate or this region from destruction.
For all our faults – and there are many – AUKUS is.
James C. Pearce is a historian based in London. He is the author of "The Use of History in Putin's Russia." Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.