The Political, Security, and Climate Landscape in Oceania


Prepared for the US Department of Defense’s Center for Excellence in Disaster
Management and Humanitarian Assistance
May 2020
Written by: Jonah Bhide, Grace Frazor, Charlotte Gorman, Claire Huitt, Christopher Zimmer, Under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Busby

Executive Summary
Research Question
The current strategic landscape in Oceania comprises a variety of complex and cross-cutting themes. The most salient of which is climate change and its impact on multilateral political networks, the security and resilience of governments, sustainable development, and geopolitical competition. These challenges pose both opportunities and threats to each regionally-invested government, including the United States — a power present in the region since the Second World War. This report sets out to answer the following questions: what are the current state of international affairs, complexities, risks, and potential opportunities regarding climate security issues and geostrategic competition in Oceania? And, what policy recommendations and approaches should the US government explore to improve its regional standing and secure its national interests? The report serves as a primer to explain and analyze the region’s state of affairs, and to discuss possible ways forward for the US government. Given that we conducted research from August 2019 through May 2020, the global health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus added additional challenges like cancelling fieldwork travel. However, the pandemic has factored into some of the analysis in this report to offer a first look at what new opportunities and perils the United States will face in this space.

Bottom line up front
In light of increased climate risks and a growing Chinese presence in Oceania, the US needs to expand its engagements and commitments in the region. A variety of American assets, such as space situational awareness facilities, radar installations, missile test sites, and ballistic missile defense systems — all of which empower US and allied operations in the Indo-Pacific and across the globe — are based in Oceania. Climate change and China’s growing presence will have long term impacts on these assets and the partnerships upon which the US relies. The US has significant opportunities to increase engagement with Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to address these challenges. Further, in partnering with regional actors such as New Zealand, Australia, France, Japan, and even China, the US can further promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.
We recommend the US continue to increase its regional involvement in a variety of ways,
including providing global leadership on climate change, renewing existing Compacts of Free Association with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau using existing financial and technical assets to support and fund development and infrastructure aimed at climate resilience, promoting the FRANZ Agreement and regional leadership through the Pacific Islands Forum, and using military funding to address the vulnerability to climate change of US military assets in the region.

Stakeholder Analysis
This report analyzes the geopolitical implications of climate change and competition in
Oceania’s strategic landscape. Oceania, as a region, is made up of twenty-two countries and territories. The larger project undertaken by our research group focused, in the main, on Fiji, Kiribati, The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. However, this analysis will include some discussion of regional territories and Papua New Guinea. Stakeholders analyzed include the US, Oceania’s multilateral organizations, China, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Japan. The essay concludes with policy recommendations for the US government.
In addition to the existential threats facing PICs and their citizens, multiple American assets in Oceania are threatened by climate change. Further, China’s growing regional influence will likely be an obstacle to the US Department of Defense’s mission to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today, the US has military assets in three Oceanic countries, ensures the security of three countries with which it has Compacts of Free Association (COFA), and holds three territories. In 2018, the US provided $290 million toward security guarantees. Since 2011, the US has contributed $1.19 billion in official development assistance to Oceania, making it the fourth largest state donor behind Australia, China, and New Zealand.
Despite these assets and commitments, the US has relied on Australia, France, and New Zealand to play a large role in disaster response through the 1992 FRANZ Agreement. US foreign policy’s attention elsewhere over the last 20 years and its faltering leadership on climate issues have deteriorated the US’ regional role. However, the rebalance to Asia and the 2017 National Security Strategy have recognized the need for a renewal of US engagement in the region. Going forward, the US has opportunities to do so in renewing COFAs, increasing its leadership and investment in climate change, and expanding existing engagements in ways that advance economic and security partnerships.
In Oceania, the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional multilateral institutions advance small island developing states’ (SIDS) interests in economic development, building disaster resilience, adapting to climate threats, and advocating for climate mitigation. The PIF and other fora pool resources and rely on partnerships with outside partners. PIF’s 2014 Framework for Pacific Regionalism restructured the Forum and reaffirmed members’ commitment to these interests and their intent to work with productive outside partners within its defined frameworks and institutions.
China is the newest actor to play a major role in the region’s contemporary history. China has become the largest lender to the developing world, and its economic and financial influence under the $4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative has reached six Oceanic states. China uses this influence to build partnerships, isolate Taiwan, and provide China footholds and access to strategic sea-lanes, ports, and supply chains. Of particular note, Chinese financial aid and investments primarily come in the form of loans, which differs greatly from the grant-based programs hosted by the US and Australia. China’s influence in Oceania is growing at a time when the country’s military is becoming more assertive globally, voicing its displeasure with the liberal, rules-based international order, and using its soft and economic power, as well as its record on fighting climate change, to cultivate partnerships.
Australia is the largest trading partner for many Oceanic states and is the region’s largest donor. Along with New Zealand, Australia shares the strongest cultural ties with Oceanic states and the two countries, along with France, play a vital role in Oceania’s security and disaster response efforts. In late 2018, Australia announced its Pacific Step-Up, an initiative reaffirming and strengthening its role in the south Pacific in light of increased Chinese influence. The Step-Up seeks to increase Australia’s economic role in the region, already standing at $7.38 billion in Official Development Assistance as well as committing to $1.27 billion in military aid over the next 30 years. In spite of its renewed commitments, Australia’s refusal to include climate science-based agendas and take seriously the climate-related threats facing PICs in its regional foreign policy initiatives, plus its coal export’s contribution to global emissions, have undermined Australia’s regional leadership and standing in Oceania.
New Zealand plays a similar role and its Pacific Reset is similar to the Step-Up. New Zealand’s Official Development Assistance to the region, $1.51 billion, is second to Australia’s. New Zealand’s trade with PICs amounts to $2.39 billion. New Zealand has raised the priority placed on the Defence Force’s ability to operate in the South Pacific to the same level as New Zealand’s territory, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. Recognizing the climate challenges facing Pacific Island states, the New Zealand Defence Force may be faced with more frequent and concurrent operational commitments, which may reduce readiness for other requirements. Further, the country has a variety of shared cultural initiatives and worker programs for Pacific island nationals. Unlike Australia, New Zealand is a productive partner on climate issues.
France played a dominant colonial role in Oceania during the late 19th century. Today, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia are French territories. 93% of France’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. France is a key partner in the FRANZ Agreement, has approximately 8,000 troops stationed in Oceania, and pledged support to combat growing Chinese influence in the region in 2019 through its new strategy for an inclusive Pacific. France has played an important international role in combating climate change, and future multilateral initiatives addressing climate security would do well to include France.
Japan played an imperial role in Oceania by holding League of Nation mandates over large swaths of Oceania after World War I. Today, Japan has translated its historic role into one of a shared Pacific island nation identity and plays a productive role through economic assistance and numerous climate initiatives. Since 2011, Japan has granted $1.1 billion in aid grants. Like the US and other Pacific allies, Japan recently committed to increasing its security contributions.

Policy Recommendations for US Government
As a result of the stakeholder analysis, the report suggests the following policy recommendations and considerations:
Early Warning and Risk Reduction
● The US Government’s scientific assets and capabilities in Hawaii, such as National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration resources, should be used to support the
FRANZ Agreement with early warning capabilities.
● Further, the US should seek to support the FRANZ Agreement and Oceanic states
through the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance
(CFE-DM) Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training. Such efforts should focus on
building local capacity and ensure that FRANZ and other disaster response plans do not
crowd out or otherwise adversely affect local resources.
Economic Engagement
● US Official Development Assistance should be given in grants to the greatest degree
● US Development Finance Corporation, established in the 2018 BUILD Act, and USAID
projects should ensure infrastructure and development projects are both sustainable
economically and help address climate resilience and disaster preparedness. Further,
projects should address regional data and imagery deficiencies and programs should be
geared towards worker training and economic opportunity.
● In addition to infrastructure projects, Development Finance Corporation, funds should be allocated to Oceania to provide technical assistance geared towards increasing SIDS
capacity to assess contracts, avoid debt-trap deals, and partner with American firms.
● The Office of the US Trade Representative should grant Generalized System of Preferences trading status to Oceania’s small island developing states.
Diplomatic Engagement
● The US Department of State should renew the 20-year Compacts of Free Association
with Federal States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands that are set to
expire in 2023, and Palau in 2024.
● The US Department of State should explore ways to increase work permits to the
mainland US from US territories in Oceania.
● US diplomatic engagement with the Pacific Islands Forum should be based out of respect for PIF’s renewed processes for regional leadership and economic development, as well as its ambitious climate change agenda.
Defense Interests
● US Department of Defense funding should be allocated to address US military assets’
vulnerabilities to rising sea levels.
● USINDOPACOM should continue to support Multinational Planning Assistance Team
(MPAT) operations such as Tempest Express.
● USINDOPACOM should continue conduct operations like the Marine’s Koa Moana, and
should support the Army’s development of Oceania-specific Pacific Pathways programs.
● Development and/or military funding to the Republic of the Marshall Islands should be
allocated for cleaning up nuclear waste facilities stemming from past US testing.
Climate Leadership
● The Federal and State governments should seek global leadership on greenhouse gas
emissions abatement, renewable energy innovations, and re-establish US commitments to the Paris Agreement.



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