The Global Chessboard of Power Politics in the South Pacific

Power Politics in Papua New Guinea

By Emanuel Skoog

In November this year, the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that the U.S. will partner with PNG and its longstanding Pacific ally Australia to a joint initiative at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. This announcement is the result of China’s growing power in the region. During World War II, the Lombrum Naval Base played a significant role in Washington’s Pacific strategy against the Japanese. Nowadays, it stills holds a strategic position overlooking important trade routes. Recently Mr. Pence did not go into any exact details regarding the U.S. plans for the base or whether U.S. vessels would be permanently stationed there, he only emphasized that the facility would highlight U.S. commitment to an “open and free Indo-Pacific”

Australia, a longstanding and loyal ally of the U.S., has enjoyed an unchallenged influence in the Pacific for decades, until China recently turned its attention to the region. Washington, already involved in a longstanding dispute with Beijing regarding the maritime routes in the South China Sea, is worried that Beijing, backed by its nascent status as a main bilateral lender to Pacific island economies may abuse its position as a large financial donor in order to secure access to water infrastructure for military purposes, including deep-water ports and wharfs .

During the last decade, the magnitude of Chinese aid and investment has increased significantly throughout the Pacific. In the case of PNG, China’s aid amounted to $20.83m in 2016 and had already tripled a year later. However, it is important to put these numbers into context. Australia still provides substantially more aid to PNG than China does – 70% of the country’s aid comes from its former colonial ruler. Historically, Australia has invested in areas like education and governance training. China, on the other side, is focusing on infrastructure investments that fit within the larger China’s Belt and Road Initiative, further tying nations in and around the Pacific to Asia’s economic behemoth. In an apparent countermove, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a multi-billion-dollar fund dedicated to Pacific island nations to build infrastructure and further outlined that the initiative aimed to restore the Pacific to the “front and centre” of Australia’s foreign outlook.

There is both an economic and political reasoning behind Beijing’s investments in the Pacific. PNG, for instance, has large amounts of natural resources, including rare earth minerals. Politically, the Pacific Island nations are home to a third of the foreign aid budget of Taiwan – something China would like to alter. However, it is China’s long term strategic ambitions that are raising the most pressing questions. Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute argues that we are witnessing the geo-politicisation of aid. The fear among countries such as Australia and the U.S. is that the Chinese endgame is to build permanent military bases in the Pacific during the coming decade. It has already been reported earlier this year  that China’s talked to the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu about the construction of a permanent military base on its territory. A potential military base less than 2000 kilometer from the Australian shoreline would enable China to project military power into the South Pacific Ocean and overturn the long-standing strategic balance in the region, potentially leading to a higher likelihood of a confrontation between China and the U.S..

The U.S. decision to partner with Australia and PNG regarding the Lombrum Naval Base should be seen in light of these recent geopolitical developments. What becomes certain is that PNG and other Pacific Island nations are now pawns on the grand geopolitical chessboard between a more assertive China, the U.S. and its allies – a struggle that is most likely only going to increase in its tenacity and scope in the near future.

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