Powerplay in the Pacific intensifies as US and allies urgently try to freeze out China
In 2012, Hilary Clinton smiled at Pacific leaders gathered in Rarotonga's cavernous National Auditorium and delivered a rehearsed and soothing line.
The US Secretary of State told the assembly all nations, including the United States and China, had an "important stake" in the region's prosperity and security.
She stressed the importance of Beijing being "transparent" in the Pacific, but her overall message was about boosting cooperation to help island nations prosper.
"I think, after all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us," she told leaders with a smile.
More than a decade later, that well-meaning bromide looks optimistic.
Washington and Beijing are engaged in an increasingly fierce arm wrestle for diplomatic and technological supremacy, and the risk is growing that the Pacific becomes a vector for that contest.
The very fact secretary Clinton was in the Cook Islands at all in 2012 — attending as a dialogue partner for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting — was an early sign that the United States was intent on reasserting its influence in the region after decades of near neglect.
But if the Obama administration's Pacific tilt was largely talk, President Joe Biden's has been intent on action.
Last year, the administration hosted a landmark presidential summit with Pacific leaders at the White House, and US officials say they are planning a repeat this September.
The United States is now reopening embassies throughout the Pacific, expanding its aid program, ramping up US Coastguard operations in the region, and unveiling a host of initiatives — sometimes with partners — which it says will help the region tackle its mounting list of threats, from climate change to illegal fishing.
The US also promised to triple funding for the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which could funnel some $US600 million ($850 million) to Pacific nations over the next decade — although so far the money remains locked up in lengthy budget negotiations in a deeply polarised Congress.
The diplomatic flurry shows no sign of slowing.
The United States military has been given "unimpeded access" to key PNG defence facilities, including the joint PNG-Australia Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, as part of a sweeping Defence Cooperation Agreement.
This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will land in Tonga to formally open a new diplomatic mission in the capital.
His counterpart, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, will land in Port Moresby around the same time, to discuss the implementation of a wide-ranging and contentious Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCI) that the US and Papua New Guinea signed in May.
It's not just about strategic denial. But there's no doubt that Washington has been moving with more urgency and purpose in the wake of China striking a security pact with Solomon Islands last year — a move which sent shock waves through both Washington and Canberra.
Since then, China has rapidly stepped up police cooperation with Solomon Islands, much to the unease of the West.
And while Chinese development assistance to the region has fallen away, Beijing has intensified efforts to court Pacific political elites, while Chinese companies with deep networks in the region continue to win major infrastructure projects bankrolled by multinational organisations like the Asian Development Bank.
Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats in the region are also making increasingly confident claims about being an exemplar and model for Pacific development, despite Pacific leaders making it crystal clear last year that they were not ready to sign a sweeping trade and security pact with Beijing.
In May this year, China's Ambassador to Solomon Islands told the Global Times that Pacific island nations had struggled with "development stagnation" because they had adopted "Westernised" political models in the wake of colonisation.
"The great practice of Chinese modernisation abandons the old Western modernisation path and provides a new modernisation reference model for PICs, providing a Chinese solution to achieve long-term stability and eradicate extreme poverty," he said.
As Australian academic Graeme Smith observed this week, both state-owned and private Chinese companies are now increasingly being forced to "carry geopolitical water" and prosecute Beijing's interests — like when the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) lobbied Solomon Islands to abandon diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
"China is now a serious player in the region with a development philosophy to sell," he wrote in the Conversation.
"It's no longer enough to read Beijing's talking points. You have to look like you mean it."
It's not only the United States and China, of course.
A quick glance at the list of visitors to Papua New Guinea in just the last three months gives you a clear sense of just how many players are now intent on building up their political stocks in the blue Pacific — which keeps the red-carpet runners at Port Moresby's APEC terminal increasingly busy.
UK Foreign Affairs Secretary James Cleverly travelled to Papua New Guinea in April to sign a renewed Status of Forces Agreement in Port Moresby.
Less than one month later, PNG also hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Antony Blinken, along with NZ Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and almost a dozen Pacific Island leaders.
The country backed it up again earlier this month with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
And by the end of next week, both Lloyd Austin and French President Emmanuel Macron can be added to that long catalogue.
Macron's main focus will be spending time in the French territory of New Caledonia, which is grappling with complex and fraught political issues around independence and the status of its ties with Paris.
But Macron will then travel on to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu — the first time a French president has left home soil while in the region — to promote what his office has called a "French alternative" to the brewing contest between Washington and Beijing.
Meanwhile, Mr Austin will be firmly focused on defence ties and shoring up the defence cooperation — which might still face a tricky path through PNG's parliament and legal system.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape has faced hurdles in selling the agreement at home, and PNG's opposition leader is seeking legal advice for a possible Supreme Court challenge.
The Lowy Institute's Mihai Sora said the DCA "came at some expense to Prime Minister Marape domestically".
"Secretary Austin will be looking to reinforce the US's interest in contributing to PNG's security needs and to increase local support for the DCA so that it passes through the Papua New Guinean system," he said.
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The deal might also come at some expense to Canberra, even though it has been officially welcomed by the federal government.
Mr Marape's struggle to sell the US defence agreement is also contributing to delays with Australia's proposed Bilateral Security Treaty with PNG, which was already meant to be finalised and signed.
In that way, the DCA also serves as a neat reminder that while Canberra is very glad to see Washington re-engaged in the Pacific, the two nations do not always have identical interests.
If it's approved, the agreement will firm up a possible military foothold for the United States at key bases in Papua New Guinea — although the Pentagon and Mr Marape have been at pains to stress that it does not specifically authorise a permanent US presence in the country.
"It's important to remember that the [DCA] will respect PNG sovereign decisions," a Pentagon spokesperson said this week.
"All activities must be mutually agreed upon."
But the deal will inevitably still feed into existing anxieties throughout the Pacific that strategic competition between the West and China — as well as other players — risks driving a rapid militarisation of the region.
And perhaps nowhere is that anxiety more acute than in Papua New Guinea's neighbour, Solomon Islands.
Manasseh Sogavare was in a pugnacious mood on Monday when he landed back in Honiara from a week-long trip to China.
The Solomon Islands prime minister once again berated Australia and the US for questioning his country's growing police cooperation with China, including a police "implementation plan" he signed while in Beijing.
He also angered Australian officials by accusing both Australia and New Zealand of mysteriously "delaying" direct budget support and putting the Solomon Islands budget in a precarious position — an allegation both Canberra and Wellington have denied outright.
The stoush created plenty of headlines, but a throwaway comment by the prime minister near the end of the press conference might prove to have much more consequence over the long term.
Mr Sogavare gave the clearest public indication yet that he wants to push ahead with developing an armed forces, declaring that the 1,500-strong Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was simply too small to guarantee either internal or external security for the country.
He also revealed he had "sounded out" Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles, about the idea during Mr Marles' visit to Honiara a few weeks ago.
The timing was probably no accident. Mr Sogavare has mused in the past about getting China to help him set up a military, and Australia will be desperate to ensure that does not happen.
When he was asked about Mr Sogavare's comments a few days later, Mr Marles declared that Australia would be "very keen" to help Solomon Islands if it decided to press ahead with the plan.
That's likely to take Australia into a very fraught space.
Any move to set up a standing Solomon Islands army would likely prove deeply contentious in the Pacific Island which has been repeatedly roiled by ethnic strife and violence, and which already lacks the money to properly fund health and education services.
Some civil society groups and Pacific officials have already expressed deep concern about the idea in private.
It's likely to split opinion in the Canberra bureaucracy as well.
The prime minister of Solomon Islands says China has agreed to provide funding to prop up the country's troubled budget, and also accused Australia and development partners of suddenly withdrawing financial support worth millions of dollars.
Anna Powles from Massey University said Mr Marles was probably intent on both denying China a role in any military set-up in Solomon Islands and "managing alliance expectations with the US".
"Recent talk of standing up militaries in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu has been doing the rounds for months and has intensified over the past year with US and Chinese security assistance on offer in the region," she wrote on Twitter.
"Canberra will need to tread very carefully."
But the episode also shows how Mr Sogavare — for all his bluster and braggadocio — has proven very adept at leveraging Australia's anxiety about China to get what he wants.
Whether that chimes with what people in Solomon Islands want and need is a separate question.
And the risk is that as the geopolitical contest intensifies, that distinction blurs or disappears entirely.
And even Pacific leaders who are also skilfully navigating the same shoals with nothing but the interests of their people in mind face growing risks as global tensions rise.
"The Pacific is well and truly in the mix as the US and China vie for global strategic primacy," the Lowy Insitute's Mihai Sora said.
"The US is alliance-building across the Indo-Pacific and openly calls for support to uphold the global rules-based order.
"China downplays its strategic intent; it does not telegraph its moves, but it is pursuing the largest military build-up in history and opportunistically looking to expand its strategic reach, including into the Pacific."
With opportunity comes risk, and plenty of snares and pitfalls which are not easily dodged.
And as the competition ramps up, with ever more outside players clamouring for a spot in the vast Pacific, the margin for error grows more narrow.
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