Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

PACIFIC – Reception of AUKUS

Digital Snapshot #21/21

11 October 2021

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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A lot has been said and written recently about the new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, however, we have heard much less about what the Pact actually means for the Pacific region. So, let’s start with some context before taking a closer look at what the media have reported in regards to how it has been received by the Pacific Island states.

As far as the Northern Pacific is concerned, the United States controlled this region after WWII. Whilst the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau have since become independent nations, they remain in so called Compacts of Free Association with the US, giving the latter exclusive military access to their territories. This did not prevent the President of the Marshall Islands, David Kabua, from expressing his concerns over the latest developments. In a recorded video message addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, he said that countries in the Pacific region were in the middle of a tug-o-war between the world’s greatest powers, faced a new emerging security threat in the form of geopolitical competition and urged world leaders to monitor geopolitical tensions. “As island leaders”, he said, “we must remain firmly in control of our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and stand apart from any who would seek to have us trade our core values for easy inducement.” President Kabua called on the Pacific’s traditional allies to stand by island nations and stressed the importance of having a strong UN body to prevent history from repeating itself.

The South Pacific, on the other hand, was primarily influenced by Australia and New Zealand after WWII. Papua New Guinea, for example, was a UN protectorate governed by Australia until it became independent in 1975. The Cook Islands and Niue remain to date in so called compacts of free association with New Zealand, which exercises foreign and defence responsibilities on their behalf. In recent years, some of the South Pacific countries have expanded their economic ties with China, be it on the basis of the Belt and Road Initiative, or otherwise. In 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati took a step further by cutting their ties with Taiwan and resuming diplomatic relations with China.

In an SBS interview on China Tonight, the President of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, explained that the decision was taken after Taiwan suddenly and unexpectedly discontinued funding of various important projects, and other diplomatic issues. Asked about AUKUS, he said that he was not consulted on the deal and felt disrespected, he wondered why defence cooperation between Australia and other nations had not been extended to Kiribati and that Australia’s deal to acquire nuclear powered submarines put the region at risk. He also confirmed that he had raised these issues with Australia at the latest UN forum but not yet received a reply at the time of the interview.

In an article published on 21 September 2021, Alfred Sasako described the Solomon Islands’ Lofung Border Outpost as a ‘Nuclear- Powered Submarine Base’. This triggered the Australian High Commission to issue a corrective statement clarifying that the article had no basis in fact. As per Prime Minister Sogavare and Prime Minister Morrison, the Western Border Patrol Outpost was a critical, infrastructure project to boost Solomon Islands’ border and maritime security. The new facility was a sovereign Solomon Islands asset, and would be owned and operated by the Solomon Islands Government. It was not an Australian military base and there was no intention to use it as a ‘nuclear-powered submarine base’.

The Solomon Islands Government followed suit by publishing a statement according to which the article was misleading and created anxiety among the people. The use of the Western Border Patrol Boat Base at Lofung was to manage its border with Papua New Guinea and the assertion made by Sasako was false and misleading. The statement goes on to assure everyone that the ‘Lofung Border and Patrol Boat base in Western Province’ would not be used as ‘Nuclear-Powered Submarine Base’. The statement also refers to the 1985 Rarontonga Treaty to which the Solomon Islands was a signatory located in a nuclear free zone. As a nuclear free state, Solomon Islands would prohibit nuclear powered or armed vessels including nuclear powered submarines to enter its waters. The Solomon Islands would object all forms of nuclear testing, storage or dumping of nuclear wastes or material in the Blue Pacific Ocean.

In the meantime, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Henry Puna, announced that the Pacific was keen to host a meeting of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones in the Blue Pacific in 2022. “I reiterate the ongoing solidarity of the Pacific Islands Forum […] as we recommit to enhance all means of cooperation between our Zones to address current threats and challenges. “We also look forward to continued cooperation with all nuclear-weapon-free zones in the lead up to the Review Conference of the Parties to the Non-Proliferation-Treaty in 2022, as well as to the Meeting of States Parties to Treaties establishing Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones.”

In sum, the reception of AUKUS in the Pacific varies depending on the location, history and bilateral association, if any, of the respective Pacific Island nation. As one expert puts it, however, the general sentiment seems to be that they do not wish to become AUKUS’ proxies, that they wish to be involved in matters that concern their territories and livelihoods, and to remain a nuclear free zone.