The New Great Game: Contested Regional Leadership in the South Pacific Theatre

The practice of international relations has historically been understood as a Great Game played between opposing players vying for geopolitical control and influence. Within the context, as the world’s eyes begin to turn towards the South Pacific Region, what can Australia do to formulate an effective regional foreign policy?

The Great Game was a concept devised in the 19th century and popularized by British author Rudyard Kipling in the 1901 novel Kim to describe the political, diplomatic and geographical positioning between the British and Russian Empires in their struggle for strategic influence over Central and Southern Asia. Emphasizing the extent to which states will seek to make use of their available resources to pursue their national interest. In this Game, the means do not justify the end, and all players will have different interpretations of the rules and boundaries; with a distinct tension existing between functioning according to the norms of the international system and successful political action. Each player must seek to survive and is only limited by its relative power capabilities, and its foreign policy ambitions.

Source: Unsplash, 2019.

Despite being a somewhat passé concept within the modern academic lexicon, the term is exceptionally apt as a means to conceptualise Chinas use of dubious methodologies to encroach upon Australia and the United States democratic sphere of influence within the South Pacific. Using subversive approaches such as illegal leases within the Solomon Islands, bribery and questionable development loan practices to gain greater influence over smaller nations states. Chinas foray into the South Pacific is concerning for Australia given its geographical proximity and the regions strategic relevance. That being said, Australia’s presumed safety of its historical influence within its own ‘backyard’ and failure to consider the agency of its Pacific neighbours has led to some clear blunders in its capacity to continue as a development partner of choice within the South Pacific. 

So, what should Australia’s next move be? Realistically, and as pointed out by Professor Hugh White, Australia cannot shirtfront Chinese infrastructure development programs within the region. China has much deeper pockets and to copy this approach would be a disingenuous attempt to buy favour through arguably neo-colonial methodologies. Although, the Pacific Step-Up Program already does to some degree engage with this concept, providing critical infrastructure funding through the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific

A next step could be attempting to increase military cooperation with the South Pacific States such as through the Lombrum Naval Base initiative with Papua New Guinea, the provision of a greater number of Guardian Class Patrol Boats or an increase in the number of Defence Cooperation Program Scholarships available to South Pacific islanders. 

However, despite the suggestions to improve Australia ‘Pacific Pivot’ to open a ‘new chapter … in relations with our Pacific family. One based on respect, equality and openness’, there is a key issue which Australia has to address; and that issue is climate change. 

Source: Pexels, 2018.

If Australia wants to be able to combat Chinas regional plans and maintain the security of its northern strategic environment it has to be able to work in solidarity with the Pacific Island nations rather than seeing them as a unilateral depository for aid monies. Rather than stymieing the attempts of the Pacific Island Forum to reach a unilateral regional understanding of the threat of climate change, Australia must be able to coalesce, to some degree, to the needs of its neighbours. 

The proposed Tuvalu Declaration of the 2019 South Pacific Conference essentially laid out a clear path to a checkmate within the region, providing a clear opportunity for Australia to greatly expand its regional soft power and to earnestly engage in its relationship with the Pacific Island Nations on a topic of great importance.

Instead, the Australian government’s refusal to consider the revision of its nationally determined emissions contributions, continued dedication to the use of fossil fuels and lacklustre support for the Green Climate fund lead to the Kainaki II Declaration being adopted instead. Whilst this is still an important declaration, Australia’s refusal to budge on key issues of importance concerning climate change has led to Australia being dubbed the ‘lesser of two evils’ in regards to China by the former President of Kiribati. This sentiment is one which it seems is becoming increasingly prevalent amongst South Pacific leadership. 

Whilst the actual way in which Australia could make a tangible impact through the revision of its climate policies is far beyond the scope of my understanding, it is becoming an increasingly pressing issue. Is it worth losing the friendship and goodwill of our northern neighbours for the sake of multinational corporations having a greater capacity to extract Australian minerals? or for the Australian Government to um and ah about when it is economically viable to make any real decision? No, the time is now. Australia cannot outbid China and to continue to stonewall and repudiate the pacific island peoples is quite frankly preposterous in the context of the Game. The next move is clear, and all Australia has to do is take the initiative to make it. 

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