The United States Secretary of Defense is visiting New Zealand just days after being appointed to the position. Mark Esper, who replaces former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General James Mattis is on a five nation trip where conversations will most likely centre around Iran and China.
Whilst so early in the set, I cannot imagine Mr Esper immediately wanting concessions from New Zealand, I do not want New Zealand to be involved in another U.S. military misadventure. New Zealand might be – and should be – friends with the United States, but keeping a bit of distance. I am quite sure most New Zealanders want nothing to do with a potential war against Iran that will most likely achieve at best significantly worsening U.S relations with the Muslim world.
At best a war with Iran will be limited to the United States and Iran. The latter would probably use its considerable special forces to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian backed militias might launch a rocket barrage at Israel. A greater fear is whether Russia decides to become involved or not. Russia could simply move military assets into Iran or Syria without actually using them as a warning to the United States. But Russian military commanders and politicians have at times made ominous references that a war against Iran would be a catastrophe. At worst it could result in a Russian military response against American forces – at which point a nuclear confrontation is not out of the question.
Perhaps more immediately problematic for New Zealand is China’s growing military assertiveness. It has built an artificial island in the Spratley Islands with an airfield and facilities for ships to dock at. China has since stationed military patrol and combat aircraft there. As vital shipping lanes pass through these waters on the way to/from various nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, the United States has sought to dissuade China from further expansion.
China’s military expansion is dangerous because it is aligned with more subtle moves such as massive investment in countries around the world. Some critics argue China is literally buying up other nations by establishing Government owned companies that then set up operations in other countries and buy their way into major assets – in Westland recently a dairy company was sold to a Chinese Government controlled company.
New Zealand sees this in Fiji and other small Pasifika nations. A few months ago there was a controversy about a resort being built on Fiji and the destruction of large tracts of coral reef to enable boat access to the resort. When locals and New Zealand expatriates living there tried to remonstrate the owners got aggressive and there were scuffles. Other countries such as Tonga have significant debt to China, which has led to concerns about Beijing’s attempts to extract leverage. And in Vanuatu, although both countries denied reports, there were suggestions that China has been looking for a place to establish a military base.
Whilst New Zealand needs to be careful not to anger either the U.S. or China, it needs to be clear that the south Pacific is the chief domain of New Zealand and Australia. More than it does either of them, the well being of these little island nations is paramount to our well being.
Every year there is an annual forum in the South Pacific called the Pacific Islands Forum. It is an opportunity for the nations of the South Pacific to meet and discuss issues of the day – be it climate change, security, the economic performance of the region or disaster relief.
Like other regions of the planet, the South Pacific has its own power games going on. These games are played at three different tiers with an interchange between them. At the top there are the major nations of New Zealand, Australia and now France – whose colonial outposts of French Polynesia (Tahiti, etc) and New Caledonia – have now joined the P.I.F. The mid tier are the ones with regional power, such as Fiji and Samoa, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea.
With climate change, the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship, China trying to muscle its way into South Pacific affairs and ongoing issues with socio-economic development there is plenty happening at the P.I.F. each year. In 2016 it is the turn of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who is trying to suggest that Australia and New Zealand, the traditional power houses whose economic and political muscle could cripple his dictatorship effortlessly – or run the risk of turning ordinary Fiji’s ethnic divisions into something worse – should not have a place at the P.I.F.
To this end Commodore Bainimarama has been cultivating a group of smaller nations to form a sub forum as part of a power play against Australia and New Zealand. Commodore Bainimarama is playing on dangerous ground. His dictatorship is very sensitive to New Zealand and Australian media and would have known when it stripped the the Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs of his role and arrested Opposition Members of Parliament that this would anger the trans-Tasman neighbours.
Surprisingly New Zealand has not reacted strongly. Contrary to the strong reactions of 2000 and 2006 when moves to stifle democracy and freedom of speech in Fiji were met with outrage, the New Zealand Government seems content with tip toeing around the fringe of the issue. Despite Chinese interest in the region, this delicate movement of toes rather than feet has not had anything to do with Beijing’s quests for more natural resources to feed its vast economy.
With climate change threatening numerous smaller island members of the Forum, some of whom may disappear completely in the coming decades, any opportunity for China to develop more “friendly” ties with vulnerable atoll states should be watched with caution. By stepping up to the plate with a more aggressive climate change policy, New Zealand would be saying that it is aware of and respects the concerns of these small states, something it has thus far been rather lacklustre in.
Being a tropical island nation Fiji is used to storms of varying strengths passing it. Most have gone out to sea or were only weak systems when they passed over the islands. It is used to flooding with heavy rains from tropical depressions that did not make it to Tropical Cyclone status. Although these have times caused significant damage, it potentially pales into relative insignificance when one looks at Tropical Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 monster.
Six days ago Winston was a Category 2 system out to sea several hundred kilometres from land. It was tracking northeast towards Tonga, which copped a glancing blow. Then on 18 February it intensified to a Category 3 storm. The following day it became a Category 4 storm and shortly after, it turned towards Fiji.
By now, T.C. Winston will have passed over the country. At the time of this article being written T.C. Winston had sustained winds of over 220km/h and gusts reaching up to 315km/h. It had Nadi, the major tourist centre square in its sights, and was expected to score a direct hit. Hundreds of people were at the airport trying to get out of Fiji, and were now stuck in the terminal with nowhere they could get to safely before T.C. Winston hit.
The power of this T.C. is a major concern as one feature many people forget about is the storm surge that accompanies such storms. There is likely to be serious flooding in Nadi and Suva both from the surge as well as rivers that will have broken their banks. The wind would have downed power and phone lines and debris will be blocking roads. The fact that many Fijian houses will not be of very strong construction means if their occupants did not take shelter they would be exposed to the wind, rain and flying debris.
As you go about your daily routine on Sunday, spare a thought and perhaps a few dollars for the people of Fiji (money to the Red Cross Pacific Disaster Fund).