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Staying out of the game

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Nauru president Lionel Rouwen Aingimea says the Pacific is not a geostrategic chessboard

Lionel Rouwen Aingimea

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Washington and Beijing make moves and countermoves in a bid to outdo each other for dominance in the Pacific region.

The United States has been accelerating its engagement with the Pacific island states, promising more economic assistance. At the Pacific Islands Forum’s general membership meeting last month, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris made a virtual appearance announcing the opening of more U.S. embassies in the region to make up for long years of neglect that gave China an opening.

While the U.S. strengthens its alliance with partners through the AUKUS and QUAD, China is bent on building its own bloc as well. After managing to forge a contentious security agreement with the Solomon Islands, Beijing attempted— but failed— to recruit 10 Pacific states to sign on to the proposed China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision and the China-Pacific Island Countries Five Year Action Plan on Common Development (2022-2026).

Nauru President Lionel Rouwen Aingimea acknowledged that the Pacific has become an increasingly sought-after strategic space, raising concerns about security and harmony in our region.

He noted that the race among the world’s superpowers is pulling the region apart. “Quite recently, the growing geopolitical tensions in the Pacific are testing our relationships with each other and with our development partners, beckoning for us to find amicable solutions and ways forward,” Aingimea said in a speech at the 2022 Pacific Update hosted on June 28 by the Development Policy Center at The Australian National University.

A copy of Aingimea’s speech titled “The Pacific is Not a Geostrategic Chessboard,” was published Devpolicy Blog.

“During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the brunt of the conflict and its worst effects were felt in Asia,” the Nauru president said. “In our region, at all cost, we must avoid being the fodder of other people’s battles. We must not be the arena where proxy battles between superpowers are fought.”

Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, stepping out of her comfort zone, has pitched her own two cents, advising island governments to be vigilant against the communist nation’s attempts to control domestic affairs.

“Guam stands with you and your effort to minimize China's efforts to control Pacific governments, assets and resources,” Leon Guerrero said in a July 19 letter to FSM President David Panuelo. “With respect to your concerns and warnings relating to China's proposals to address climate change, I take notice. We should remain vigilant and focused on this most pressing issue,” she added.

Aingimea noted that since late March this year, there has been an intensified interest in the region with the announcement of a policing agreement between China and the Solomon Islands and then of a broader security agreement that was eventually signed in April.

“Much has been made of this security arrangement including whether China was poised to build a base in the Solomon Islands. In the lead up to the Australian election, the security of the region became predominant with the Sino-Solomon Islands agreement seen by some as a failure of Australian foreign policy,” Aingimea said.

The Nauru president, however, pointed out Australia has a similar agreement with the Solomons and that China has for several years had a security agreement with Fiji. “Indeed, when that was signed the possibility of a base was raised with the attendant challenges that it would pose to regional security,” Aingimea said.

A plethora of activities that have since ensued after the Solomons-China brouhaha died down have all added to the speculation of spheres of influence and the strategic geopolitical importance of the Pacific region.

“I will leave it to the security specialists to dissect and discern the security implications of the various agreements and the significance of these high-level meetings,” Aingimea said. “What is crucial for us is that we do not become engulfed in other people’s strategic machinations.”

Aingimea said Nauru’s history provides a prescient reminder that foreign interventions were remnants of WWII and “the ravages of colonialism.”

“It is vital that the Pacific is not viewed as a geostrategic chessboard because such activity has real consequences for our people,” he said.

Aingimea urged his fellow island leaders to remain focused on delivering and promoting development that empowers Pacific islanders and makes the region stronger. “As a region we need reliable partners that respect us and work with us, recognizing our unique cultures,” he said.

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