Thirty-six years ago, almost to the day, after he launched Fiji’s first military coup in 1987, the now-elected Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, yesterday awarded the Prime Minister of India Fiji’s highest honour.
That 1987 coup was targeted against a Labour government which contained Indian Ministers and led to fears within Fiji’s Indian population that they too would be hit, so thousands fled to Australia and New Zealand.
But in Port Moresby at a Pacific summit yesterday, all that was consigned to ancient history.
Instead India arrived with a substantial aid package for the Pacific — including yoga centres for every Pacific Islands Forum country.
The Pacific has changed and the meeting of Pacific leaders along with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which saw Papua New Guinea sign a security agreement with the United States, was yet another event indicating how the region has become a theatre for the strategic rivalry between the US and China.
And as part of that, Pacific leaders have bought into the United States – Indian preference for the phrase “Indo-Pacific” to describe the region rather than “Asia Pacific”, which is considered too closely aligned to China.
The Prime Minister Chris Hipkins spent the day at the meeting and met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, PNG Prime Minister James Marape, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was representing President Biden.
“All our discussions were consistently engaging and productive. I particularly valued my meeting with Prime Minister Modi and attending the India- Pacific leaders lunch,” said Hipkins.
“Engagement at Prime Minister-level is crucial to taking our relationship with India forward, and Prime Minister Modi invited me to visit India as soon as I am able.
“We also discussed strengthening our trade links, including through a visit by the New Zealand Trade Minister in the coming months.
“As I’ve said previously, while this visit was relatively short, it was significant.
“Regional unity is critical to the resilience of the Pacific, and it was particularly encouraging to see the United States engaging so constructively with the Pacific Islands Forum members.”
But those comments about the US have to be read in the context of the growing confrontation between the US and New Zealand’s largest trading partner, China.
A study published yesterday by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute authored by New Zealand academic Anna Powles and Australian academic Joanne Wallis concluded that the two global superpowers—themselves locked in a broader geopolitical struggle—have directed so much attention to the Pacific islands region illustrates their growing recognition of its strategic importance.
The study set out to look at the role of New Zealand, Australia and the US in the region.
The authors say that while relations between the US and New Zealand had warmed considerably since 1985 when the US suspended its security guarantee under ANZUS to New Zealand, the two aren’t formal treaty allies.
“However, the alliances between Australia and the US, and Australia and New Zealand, remain active,” they say.
“And ties between the three states have been burnished by their membership of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership.”
As the suspension of ANZUS between the US and New Zealand coincided with the end of the Cold War and the US’s effective withdrawal from much of the Pacific islands region, it had little impact on the US and New Zealand’s cooperation in the region, as Australia and New Zealand instead worked together, the report says.
The authors propose that regional security be elevated as a concern for the US, Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Island governments through the establishment of an ongoing regional forum modelled on the ASEAN Regional Forum which would include an annual Foreign Ministers meeting as well as regular officials meetings.
The Forum would include Australia, New Zealand and the US.
But apart from China, other countries like the UK, France, Japan, and Indonesia are also active in the region.
And yesterday in Port Moresby, India made a play to become a major player in the region with the announcement of a substantial aid package to Pacific countries.
It included a super-speciality cardiology hospital in Fiji.
The hospital would be equipped with trained staff, modern facilities, and infrastructure and would serve as a lifeline for the entire region, the Indian Government said in a statement.
“The Indian government will bear the full cost of this mega greenfield project,” the statement said.
Along with the Indian Government pledged to assist in setting up dialysis units in all 14 Pacific island countries and provide all the Pacific Forum countries with “sea ambulances.”
And in a unique contribution, the statement said scientific studies had shown that yoga could be highly effective in preventing lifestyle diseases like diabetes.
“We propose establishing yoga centres in your countries to promote its benefits,” Modi told the meeting.
Meanwhile Hipkins confirmed New Zealand would provide NZ$15 million in emergency budget support for Cook Islands in its ongoing recovery from the impacts of Covid.
But the events in Port Moresby are unlikely to go unnoticed in Beijing.
Coincidence or not, China’s Consul General in Auckland, Chen Shijie, last night distributed a recent report on US coercive diplomacy.
Shijie said that with a large number of facts and data, the report has “elaborated on the practice of the United States to conduct coercive diplomacy around the world, exposing the hegemonic and bullying nature of American diplomacy, and the serious damage caused by US coercive diplomacy to the national development of various countries, regional stability, and world peace.”
Wallis and Powles say that China’s presence in the Pacific is something we need to work with.
“One of the main reasons that Pacific Island countries are more activist is that they have a growing range of partners seeking to work with them, and China offers the most important alternative to Australia, New Zealand, the US and other ‘like-minded’ states,” their report says.
“Regardless of how threatening Australia, New Zealand, the US, and others may find China’s increasingly visible presence in the Pacific Islands region, the Solomon Islands example illustrates that they don’t have the power to compel PICs not to pursue closer relations with China.
“They’ll instead have to accept and plan for a range of powers to continue to play a role in the region.
“This is not to say that Australia, New Zealand and the US have to welcome or facilitate China’s expanding role, nor that they shouldn’t try to discourage it, but for the time being, it’s a reality that they need to work with.”