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Are We Being Played in the Pacific?

Image courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Dan Pilhorn/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) The Strategist on 10 September 2018.

If you were trying to design a low-cost strategy to constrict the operational horizon of an important US ally in the region, China’s ploys in the Pacific wouldn’t be a bad model to examine.

China has been talking a big game in the Pacific. It’s been reported as looking to fund a major regional military base in Fiji and scoping Vanuatu for a military base of its own. And it apparently has plans to refurbish four ports in Papua New Guinea, including the strategically significant Manus Island. Over the decade 2006–2016, it has committed US$1.8 billion in aid, and Chinese telco Huawei has sought to build undersea internet cables in the region.

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Beauty and Dehydration

Beautiful - yes. Drinkable - no. Photo courtesy mrlins/flickr


While it is by no means on the same scale as the crisis affecting the Horn of Africa, drought is also leading to disaster on the tiny South Pacific atolls of Tokelau. Home to around 1,500 people, the New Zealand-administered territory is entirely reliant on rainwater; with less than a week’s supply of potable water left on the atolls, 136,000 more liters are being shipped in via the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the US Coastguard.

At the end of September, neighboring Tuvalu went as far as declaring a state of emergency due to drought. Imposing a strict system of rationing, families are receiving two to four buckets of water a day on the main island of Funafuti, according to Olioliga Iosua, Permanent Secretary in Tuvalu’s Ministry of Public Utilities. Desalination units are being airlifted in from Australia and New Zealand, but disease is already spreading among the population.

Is this a message that the end is near for the residents of Tuvalu and Tokelau – that they will soon have to depart for other Pacific islands? Perhaps. Could it be taken as a sign that these atolls were not suitable for inhabitation in the first place? Maybe. » More