The past 12 months have seen a veritable frenzy of diplomatic activity in the Pacific Ocean. Traditional powers and new friends alike have intensified their courtship of Pacific island administrations: Australia announced a ‘step up’ in its engagement with island states ; New Zealand pledged a dramatic bump in aid to the region as part of a ‘Pacific re-set’ ; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with island leaders to win support for a ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ Strategy ; French President Emanuel Macron travelled to the region to declare support for the ‘Blue Pacific’ ; even the UK announced it was diving back into the region, with three new diplomatic posts to be opened in Pacific island countries.
What are we to make of all this diplomatic activity? There is little doubt that geostrategic competition has returned to the Pacific Ocean. The distribution of power in the world is changing. Perhaps most importantly, rapid economic growth in China has seen an expansion of that country’s power and influence. The Chinese-funded ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure project, and the establishment of a new Chinese-initiated multilateral bank, have been accompanied by speculation China will seek a greater say in regional and global affairs. In response, traditional powers on the Pacific-rim are looking to shore up commitment to the rules and norms of the existing international order, and are hoping to enlist Pacific island states in that effort. Competition between the United States and China (and dramatic points of contention, such as the debate over territorial claims in the South China Sea) form a backdrop to this renewed interest in the Pacific islands.