Will the Small States of Oceania Be Able to Maintain Their Independence in the Face of a New China-USA Cold War?

ASIA--PACIFIC, 31 Jul 2023

Timur Fomenko | RT - TRANSCEND Media Service

The ‘friends to all, enemies to none’ strategy is living its last days as the US and China press the island nations to take sides.

23 Jul 2023 – Papua New Guinea is a gateway between continents. The island, being effectively cut in half, demarcates an artificial boundary between Asia and Oceania. In the past several centuries, the broader island has been carved upon between almost every colonial power going, having been ruled at various points by the Dutch, Spanish, German, Japanese and British empires. Even after gaining its formal independence from Australia in 1975, these legacies continue to scar the island, with half of it still belonging to Indonesia, known as West Papua, which is now a source of unrest and insurgency.

The history of constantly fluctuating overlords only demonstrates the country’s perceived strategic and military importance. That’s because whoever dominates it has direct access to both Australia and the Pacific, and can project into Asia itself. It is of little surprise that Papua New Guinea (PNG) became one of the most gruesome fronts of the Pacific War in World War II, which subsequently brought it firmly into the hands of the Anglosphere, where it has remained ever since, making it an effective dependency of Australia in terms of aid and humanitarian assistance.

Despite this, the island has nothing to show for centuries of colonial dominion, or from being a subordinate of the English-speaking world as a black Melanesian country. It is one of the world’s poorer nations, and is in desperate need of infrastructure to develop itself. Because of this, it has developed a foreign policy it describes as ‘friends to all, enemies to none’, which seeks to attain and exploit as many development opportunities as possible and better sustain its own strategic autonomy. This of course, has drawn interest from China, who sees the islands as an important partner as a post-colonial, Global South country. Thanks to PNG being part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has built airports, highways, sea ports, and telecommunications infrastructure across the country.

Port Moresby, in turn, sees Beijing as a critical economic partner that can help bolster its own infrastructure and development, the two countries recently having negotiated a free trade agreement. But that doesn’t mean trouble is not afoot. While China seeks to bolster economic relations with the country, the US has other ideas; that is, to forcibly transform Papua New Guinea into a military outpost for the purpose, of course, of containing China. Recently, Washington was able to pry a Defense Cooperation Agreement out of the country, which will give the US access to its bases.

PNG, of course, denies that the is specifically opposing China, and does not rule out security cooperation with Beijing itself. However, it is also a reminder that the country’s weak and vulnerable position, along with its historical subservience to the West, means it does not have the power or political privilege to resist these kinds of overtures, and instead must seek a more delicate balance. In response to this, China is likely to increase its engagement with the country; for example, the Bank of China is working to establish a presence there.

Growing competition over Papua New Guinea also comes amid China’s successes in its relationship with the Solomon Islands, which switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 2019. On July 11, the two countries finally signed a security cooperation pact, which has met with vitriol from Western media and politicians.

What this demonstrates is that the Pacific region has become a ‘cold war’ theater between China and the US, with the latter working through its ally, Australia. The US, after all, has long attempted to make the Pacific an ‘extended backyard’ or ‘ranch’, a large open space over which it seeks to be the exclusive military power. But now, China is expanding into it, and this has led to the emergence of strategic competition.

However, these Pacific countries do not really want to take sides – they are tired of being tossed from one master to the other. This means the fundamental challenge for countries such as Papua New Guinea is to gain benefits to strengthen itself, while nonetheless avoiding subservience. This means it has a fight to continue its ‘friends to all, enemies to none’ approach, while tensions rise and both powers start demanding it take sides on various issues. But if worst-case scenarios can be avoided, and the pace of investment in the country from all sides accelerates, the end product may be that competition could ultimately make PNG and the island countries a lot better off, and therefore a lot more capable of exerting their own will.


Timur Fomenko is a political analyst.

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