At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in London last week, Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced the UK would expand its diplomatic network with the opening of nine new diplomatic posts in Commonwealth countries, including three in the Pacific: Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The reasons given were threefold: boosting prosperity, addressing security issues, and environmental protection.
The UK’s post-Brexit reorientation to the Pacific is raising a number of questions about the nature of Britain’s re-engagement with the region. Here we examine three critical areas for consideration: security, the quality of political and diplomatic engagement and regionalism.
It is as yet unclear how the UK will advance its security interests in the Pacific. Over the past two decades, these have been outsourced to Australia, the United States, and, to a lesser degree, New Zealand. The UK’s contemporary security partners in the region reflect the changed security environment: Australia, as the principal security partner in the Pacific islands and with whom the UK has long-standing defence and security ties; Japan, as the UK’s closest ally in Asia with shared maritime interests across the Pacific; and France as a significant Pacific power with permanent bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia and with whom the UK has strong defence and security ties under the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties.
The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the 2017 mini review gives some insight into the type of defence engagement we could possibly expect to see from the UK at the regional level (although notably neither actual mention the Pacific islands). For example, the UK could extend its global defence network through defence engagement activities, specifically programmes enabling partners and support to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. In light of the growing importance of disaster diplomacy in the region and the UK’s contributions to HADR operations in Vanuatu (Cyclone Pam, 2015) and Fiji (Cyclone Winston, 2016), there may be some interest in elevating the UK’s role as a HADR partner. If so, the UK could seek to partner with FRANZ, the regional humanitarian relief coordination arrangement between France, Australia and New Zealand.
Similarly, if the UK pursues maritime security interests in the Pacific it could seek to partner with the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (QUAD), in which the United States, Australia, and New Zealand coordinate maritime security cooperation in the region.
Perhaps the most important question that arises in relation to the UK pivot is around the quality of the diplomatic and political engagement that is on offer to Pacific partners. There are numerous opportunities and risks in this space and it is critical that London garners its own intelligence and analysis of what is really going on in the region, rather than outsourcing it to either Canberra or Wellington. Whilst some may be dismissive about the significance of re-opening of three diplomatic missions, initial responses indicate that the announcement has been well received in the region. The somewhat misty-eyed view of the impacts of British colonialism that persists in several Pacific island countries may offer some residual political capital. However, in order for this to be used to good effect it will need to be converted into a credible partnership approach based on listening, promoting shared values, and establishing relationships based on trust.
As well as opportunities, there are risks that need to be evaluated and avoided or mitigated where possible. For example, it would be disappointing to see London adopt the sort of megaphone diplomacy we sometimes see from nearer neighbours. Similarly, we can only hope that there are not too many repetitions of the ‘optics fail’ such as the forthcoming NZ/UK forum on Pacific climate change to be hosted, in all places, Wilton Park. The choice of location represents so many missed opportunities for the UK (and NZ) to make a real investment in diplomacy and soft power, including the amplification of Pacific voices, on which important returns could be expected.
Finally, in addition to enhanced bilateral relationships in the Pacific, we would expect to see greater participation from the UK at the regional level. Britain is a post-Forum dialogue partner of the Pacific Islands Forum and a member of the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). These are points of contact that can be utilised to good effect, drawing on the enhanced diplomatic footprint. It is reasonable to expect that London will take up the invitation to rejoin the Pacific Community (SPC), the oldest of the regional organisations, and the one which has the widest membership. Less likely, and probably inadvisable, would be any attempt to promote Pitcairn Island’s membership of the Pacific Islands Forum as a means of getting a seat at that table.
Currently, the EU is a significant source of development assistance to regional organisations, and is cited as ‘principal development partner’ of the SPC. A combination of this Pacific pivot and the (as yet unclear) implications of Brexit mean we would expect investments by the Department for International Development (DfID) to become more significant, whether in terms of quantum, impact, or both. In 2016, the UK devoted 0.1% of its aid budget to work in the Pacific, over and above EU funding into the region, to which the British contribute. Whilst there have already been indications that the reinvigorated engagement with our region will include more aid, there are currently no details on what this might mean.
The announcements at CHOGM are a clear signal that the UK sees a need to re-establish and reinforce key relationships in the Pacific. How this works in practice has yet to be determined and there are numerous steps and hurdles along the way, including negotiating domestic political hurdles, which will no doubt present themselves.
Dr Tess Newton-Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Political Science & International Studies, University of Queensland, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, and can emailed at email@example.com.
Image credit: Crowds wait for Prince Charles during his recent visit to Vanuatu. Image from Clarence House Twitter feed.