Great Power Geopolitics and the Scramble for Oceania

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The practice of wooing peripheral states is as much a part of today’s budding U.S. rivalry with China as it was during the actual Cold War with the former Soviet Union. Indeed, the PRC has gone to tremendous lengths trying to create a sphere of influence in Washington’s backyard.

In 2000, Chinese trade with Latin America sat at $12 billion. By 2021 the region had done over $430 billion worth of business with the PRC. China is in the business of resource acquisition, perhaps above any other type of business, and the commodity-rich states of Latin America have remained a major target. Through foreign direct investment and infrastructure spending related to the BRI, China is the second-largest trading partner for all of Latin America (after the United States) but the largest partner for South America. China’s presence in Latin America should concern policymakers more than it does, but the Biden administration has, at least, signaled a desire to play catch-up in its backyard, via nearshoring projects and soft-power programs.

Likewise, over the last decade, a neocolonial race to invest in Africa’s numerous resources and bountiful patronage has played out between the likes of China, the U.S., and, increasingly, Russia.  Unlike in Latin America, however, China’s economic footprint in Africa seems to be fading. Loans to the region (doled out for ports, railways, and the like and always degraded as debt-trap diplomacy by the United States and the West) are down to less than $2 billion after peaking at $28.4 billion in 2016.


Oceania: The Long-Neglected Sphere

Oceania is a region long neglected by the U.S., but one in which Project Woo could prove ultimately important in a security context within America’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy.  Here, China is again the courter out in front as the third-largest donor of development aid to the island region, behind Australia and New Zealand. Like in Latin America and Africa, the Chinese race to build infrastructure and dole out aid comes from a desire to push the BRI, gain posturing, and perhaps even build military bases in the Indo-Pacific. Increasingly, however, an important commonality in all three of these regions is the states’ expected renouncement of a sovereign Taipei and a willingness to succumb to the party line from Beijing. It should not come as a surprise to learn that twelve of the thirteen countries that recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty are located in Latin America and Oceania.

China is chipping away at this bloc. In 2019, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands pulled their support away from an independent Taiwan to reap over eleven million dollars from Beijing banks into a development fund. Approximately $1.5 billion in grants and loans were garnered by several Pacific Island countries over eleven years.

In the context of a long-discussed potential invasion of Taiwan by China, a string of friendly bases, populated by islanders in line with Beijing’s plans, would prove to be of paramount importance to the CCP.  It would to the United States, too, however.

The catch-up effort in Oceania is stronger than those in the Americas or Africa. First, in 2019 the State Department “announced more than $100 million in new U.S. assistance to the region under the Pacific Pledge of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. This assistance represents the U.S. commitment to the Pacific Islands, an essential part of this dynamic and strategically located region.”

In September of 2022, the White House unveiled its first-ever Pacific Partnership Strategy, laying out a framework for the future of U.S. engagement with the region. The plan admits previous neglect and goes on to connect Oceania to the United States’ larger Indo-Pacific Strategy. This is significant because it signals an intent to move U.S. policy beyond its traditional focus on the north Pacific.


Australia and New Zealand

In September 2021, Biden insisted that the “United States has no closer or more reliable ally than Australia.”

Similarly, the U.S. National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell promised that “moving forward, everything we do of consequence in the Indo-Pacific, we will do with Australia.”

Australia has long been a major ally of the USA, and in the past year that partnership is ramping up more than at any time since 1951, when Australia, New Zealand, and US Security (ANZUS) Treaty went into effect. However, in the past decade or so, though Australia has claimed the USA as its strategic partner of preference, which makes sense, it claims China as its economic partner of choice. This, again, makes sense, but Canberra is even shying away from that kind of narrative in light of China’s aggressive tactics in the Indo-Pacific region. As the global leader in iron ore production, Australia exports a quarter of its goods to China, followed by Japan, South Korea, and India respectively. New Zealand, a worldwide leader in pasteurized dairy products, also exports more to China than any other country. Both presidents Trump and Biden have worked to make Australia an integral player in the United States’ strategic competition with China

In 2021, Australia, the UK, and the US announced an enhanced trilateral security partnership called AUKUS which would focus on deeper integration of defense, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains, as well as deeper cooperation. The first initiative under AUKUS saw a commitment to support Australia in acquiring conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.

And there remains what has become, perhaps, the most important off-the-books alliance in existence, at least in terms of the type of global security sought by the United States and its Pacific allies: The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue bloc with Australia, Japan, and India. A Quad of four democracies offering showings of force and unity in the Indo-Pacific waters, and engaging in naval drills together, like the Malabar exercises, exemplifies the very essence of deterrence.

Australia is even upping the ante on its own accord. After several years of scant defense spending, former prime minister Scott Morrison announced, via the Defence Strategic Update, funding amounting to a proposed $575 billion budget over the next ten years to help fund items in which all democratic allies in the region need to boost investment: long-range precision-guided munitions, unmanned crafts, and intelligence technologies.

A strong, coordinated ANZUS is necessary for the Indo-Pacific. Far enough removed from the straits that may become forward hot zones in the context of an invasion of Taiwan, these island countries are ideal for rear naval and air bases that the alliance should begin work to immediately improve or refurbish. The Pacific Islands that make up Oceania have shown their geostrategic importance now as well. Instead of playing catchup, the United States should take on the roles that China has tried to play in Latin America and Africa: Covid/Healthcare diplomacy, infrastructure improvements, and should even throw some genuine military diplomacy into the mix, all the while avoiding the baggage that Washington insists that Chinese “aid” carries with it.


The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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