11 May 2022
China’s Pacific plans
Despite being in the middle of an election campaign, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, met with her Solomon Islands counterpart in Brisbane last Friday to discuss Honiara’s security agreement with Beijing. Similarly worried, Japan’s foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, flew into Suva to meet with the Fijian prime minister, Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, and the Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general, Henry Puna.
While Payne received assurances that China would not be permitted to build a military facility in Solomon Islands, this does not preclude greater Chinese military activity throughout the Pacific. In a region that is highly susceptible to extreme weather events, militaries from various countries are being increasingly relied on to respond to natural disasters. Australia and New Zealand have taken the lead with this, but Pacific island countries may also call upon further assistance from outside forces, such as China.
Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, as well as the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, highlighted the risk that climate change is posing to Australia’s regional operations. Yet threats to the Pacific’s broader security – through loss of resources, housing and livelihoods – is not the only concern. The prospect of competition between adversarial militaries to respond to natural disasters also has the potential to increase friction within the Pacific.
China may see disaster response as an opportunity to integrate further within the region. The possibility of China being the emergency response partner of choice for Solomon Islands initially, and other countries subsequently, would be a disturbing scenario for Australia. It is a knock-on effect of this new security pact Canberra will need to work hard to prevent.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr will be the next president of the Philippines. Marcos is the son of the country’s former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for two decades before being ousted in a popular and military-backed uprising in 1986. During this time, it’s estimated the Marcos family stole as much as US$10 billion of public money, and committed human rights violations, including brutally repressing political opponents.
Despite this, Marcos Jr has been able to rehabilitate his family’s legacy through a successful social media campaign that has reframed his father’s regime as an era of growth and stability. As the median age in the Philippines is twenty-seven, there is a lack of historical memory capable of resisting Marcos’s nostalgic mythmaking.
Part of Marcos’s appeal is due to a belief that the country’s governing institutions are not working. The democratic system that was created in 1986 superficially exhibited the features of liberal democracy, but it disguised a structure that concentrated wealth and power in a small number of families, while failing to create widespread social benefits.
As with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, voters who believe that a political system is corrupt and unfair are attracted to shamelessly self-serving politicians. It is a demonstration of a deep cynicism towards democracy. Outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte is also representative of this democratic suspicion. While he respected his single six-year term limit, his daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, will be Marcos’s vice-president.
Ukraine’s ability to withstand, and even repel, the Russian military is providing valuable lessons to Taiwan about how to defend against invasion by a stronger military force. Part of Taiwan’s planning is now to focus on asymmetric warfare, which prioritises being difficult to target and greater precision with counterstrikes rather than trying to compete via conventional tactics.
The United States has been encouraging Taiwan in this type of warfare by selling appropriate weapons, while rejecting requests from Taiwan for weapons that the US deems unsuitable for defending against the Chinese military. The objective is to make Taiwan a “porcupine” – a territory too costly to attack.
The similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine extend to the reasons that China and Russia respectively seek to control them. Taiwan has made the successful transition from authoritarianism to liberal democracy over the past three decades and is a beacon for countries hoping to make the same shift. Ukraine’s positive steps in this direction were deemed a threat by Russia.
Taiwan’s democracy is a demonstration that Chinese people are not naturally inclined to authoritarianism, as the Communist Party would claim. While Taiwan may be able to make itself a porcupine, Beijing may feel attempting to control it is worth the cost.