13 Feb 2013

Foreign policy experts sound caution over US China manouevres in region

4:31 pm on 13 February 2013

Foreign policy experts are expecting China and the United States to continue their soft power rivalry in the South Pacific region under the new Secretary of State in Washington and a new leader in Beijing.

But there are warnings Pacific Island countries could find themselves on the rim of conflict with the chance of a clash over disputed territories further north.

Sally Round reports.

A US foreign policy expert at the University of Auckland, Associate Professor Stephen Hoadley, says new Secretary of State, John Kerry, will continue where Hillary Clinton left off, stressing the United States' steady re-engagement with the region is not an effort to contain China.

He says he's optimistic relations between Washington and Beijing will continue to be harmonious, barring a confrontation stemming from disputes over islands in the East and South China Seas.

"The United States interest is in making sure there is an unimpeded waterway through international waters through which legitimate commerce and of course United States military can move without any threat. Now if either side impedes this the United States will reassert this deeply-felt traditional view that freedom of the seas is an absolute necessity for any kind of civilised international relations and the US will be there with the seventh fleet opening up that waterway by force if necessary."

Professor Hoadley says of the United States' territories in the region, Guam would be most affected.

It is being built up at the moment as a major staging base. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, some of those assets will be relocated to Guam in the event of some sort of Asian crisis which we hope doesn't happen. But Guam would be affected and the forces in Guam would be standing by to take some sort of action if necessary.

Further south, the US Army Corps of Engineers is looking to lease up to 15,000 acres of land in American Samoa for training army reserve soldiers.

A former analyst with the US National Security Agency, Wayne Madsen, says it is part of US preparations for confrontation with China and a steady militarisation of US-connected islands in the region.

This is to train not only US forces for Pacific Rim warfare but also to train the indigenous forces of several countries in the area, Fiji and other states where the US is starting to show a greater interest.

Wayne Madsen says Hillary Clinton was fond of rattling the sabre at China and it remains to be seen whether John Kerry will follow the same tack.

I think what we're seeing here is the circling of the wagons. What is inevitable is a military confrontation between a new right wing government in Japan and China and also more nationalistic governments in South East Asia again against China with the US not taking a neutral position but taking sides and at the same time building up a lot of military forces in the area, in Australia, in the South Pacific, in South Korea, Japan and The Philippines.

Professor Hoadley says the US-China relationship will also be tested in the Pacific Island region by China's continued policy of providing soft loans to highly indebted island states, what he calls influence-gathering via VIP visits to Beijing or an increase in the number of warship visits to the area.

If that happens then I think the United States will try to increase its aid, its diplomatic representation and maybe its military deployments just to send political messages to Beijing that this is not a vacuum of power. This is a vibrant region in which Australia, New Zealand, France and the United States are playing a very constructive role and that the Chinese, if they keep a low profile and do things constructively and in consultation with the traditional partners, they'll be welcome.

Papua New Guinea's Defence Minister, Fabian Pok, is one of the latest Pacific Island VIPs to get red carpet treatment in Beijing, coming away with US$1.8 million in military aid from China.

This year China's also offered security aid to Fiji and Vanuatu with top defence ministry official, Major General Qian Lihua, visiting Suva and Port Vila.

The latest assistance includes vehicles, uniforms and training opportunities for Fiji's military and Vanuatu police.

An expert on China's policies and presence in the Pacific, Associate Professor Anne-Marie Brady of New Zealand's University of Canterbury, says VIP visits are nothing new as visit diplomacy has been China's standard practice for a number of years, especially during the days of stronger rivalry with Taiwan in the region.

But she does raise a note of caution.

As part of the assistance that China's been giving to the South Pacific which is of interest and concern to countries like New Zealand and Australia has been military assistance. At the moment it's in terms of non combat kind of assistance but it's still something to be looked at and kept an eye on because it alters the balance and the level of influence that countries like New Zealand and Australia have in the region and they consider themselves as being dominant states in the region.

Professor Brady says from her recent talks with foreign affairs officials in Beijing, the South Pacific continues not to be a priority for China.

China's not proactive in the region. I think they're responsive in many ways. They would likely have been approached by the Papua New Guinea defence authorities and the same with Fiji. So it's not that China's seeking to interfere in that way but they've been approached and asked for assistance. They're also giving some help to Tonga. China's not seeking to dominate the region but they're responsive to requests that they have.

Professor Brady says Beijing has serious domestic issues to deal with and foreign policy in general is not likely to change markedly under the new leadership of Xi Jinping.

But Stephen Hoadley says there are two schools of thought on the new man at China's helm.

One that China will look inwards to social reform, to clean up its atmosphere, to bring greater income equality to the country and therefore Chinese foreign policy will be very cautious and the other school of thought is that China now has a strong military, a strong economy and therefore we're going to see a much more robust China in the coming six years of the new presidency.

In Mr Xi's first foreign policy speech as leader last month he said China would stick to the road of peaceful development but never give up its legitimate rights nor sacrifice core national interests.