A Glimpse at Oceania by Mayuri Bannerjee
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A Glimpse at Oceania by Mayuri Bannerjee

By Mayuri Bannerjee

The term “Oceania” collectively denotes the islands scattered throughout most of the Pacific   Ocean. In a stricter sense it includes more than 10,000 islands with a total land area of 317,700sq miles. Oceania has been divided into four parts: Australia including New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The region has diverse forms of governments a wide geographic distribution but confront similar domestic and international concerns. The issues of common interest have resulted in surprising level of regional integration and initiative for adoption of common market. 

Book Cover - China in Oceania
The states of Oceania may appear insignificant on the vast stretches of Pacific with zero military power and little diplomatic clout but considerable growth in their economic, military and political potential contradict their geographical limitation. The region’s ports, runways, availability of skilled labor, pro-market policies and low rates of corruption make it highly attractive for foreign investors. No doubt it has secured considerable attention from both Beijing and Washington. The region has high mineral content and vast natural resources like fish, timber, coral reefs which are both economically and ecologically indispensable. Both China and America are competing closely for influence in the region. With collapsing global fish stocks, Oceania provides both the countries a rich and diverse fishing ground. Although China has interests other than just economic ones, China is bent on reversing the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan which it considers a breakaway province. Of twenty-three states worldwide that recognize the government of Taipei, six are located in Oceania it also represents a strong diplomatic regional cluster. To offset China’s growing influence in the region, the Obama administration has renewed its effort to win over all the fourteen states of Oceania. Both China and America envisage Oceania as a ground of strategic power play because in an event of major conflagration between China and America in East Asian waters Oceania would be of crucial importance.  

RAMSI Mission Logo
Australia and New Zealand are the Oceania’s traditional powers. Australia is the region’s most prominent trading partner; in 2006 the Country Brand Index marked Australia as the most marketable nation projecting a positive image worldwide. Australia is also the largest investor, source of inbound tourism and the region’s largest donor providing 55% of all donor funds. No other donor anywhere in the world dominates to the extent Australia does in the Pacific. Australia has dominated Melanesia in trade, investment links, tourism and aid for at least three decades.  Australia is the key strategic partner of the region. The Regional Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) can be sighted as an instance of stark Australian dominance. Australia had mobilized all its resources to convince the Pacific Islands Forum to send a huge assistance mission to Solomon Islands in the event of a militant siege of the government, other major players like France, US and Japan could offer only moral support. Australia since Hawke-Keating years has concentrated mainly on pro market policies leading to brutal economic growth. However, this global process has given rise to acute political instability to the extent that Australia has been denounced as coup capital which has been clearly expressed in intense conflict inside the Labor Party but this has not affected Australia’s diplomatic status; Australia’s bi-maritime significance has increased in Indo-China-US triangle. To contain possible Chinese expansion Canberra may side with Washington but it has on the contrary engaged China economically. A dialogue between China and US is in the interest of Australia but that seems a critical challenge. When Rudd sought to ameliorate rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, it cut directly across Washington policy to undermine China and Rudd’s ouster was arranged by key Labor factional powerbrokers closest to Washington. In November 2011 when Obama paid a visit to Australia he formally outlined his “pivot to Asia” policy in an address to Australian parliament and also signed a deal to open up Australian military bases to American Marines ,warships and warplanes placing the country on the frontline of any US –China conflict. When Beijing made its displeasure known, Gillard quickly lost her zeal for closer ties and has also become wary of further American initiatives. It became very apparent that Gillard had been made sensitive to Chinese interests and Beijing can turn her diplomatic achievements into political disasters. The challenge that lies ahead of Australia is to walk the fine line separating an old ally and an important commercial partner for neither of the powers will allow Canberra to keep the two relations separate both at a strategic and diplomatic level. In the grim battle for influence, Australia is one of the precious prizes and any move that Canberra makes in respect of one is a rebound against the other. 

While US is bent on positing itself firmly in Asian politics, China as a rising power sees it a move to contain Chinese influence, this puts Australia in a dangerous position and a powerless shuttlecock between its two important partners. In comparison to Sino-Australian or Australian –US relation, relation with India has been sparse and troubled. Each side has been smugly contemptuous of each other; a common interest for cricket may not have been enough to bring the two powers closer. In 2007 when Howard government decided to sell uranium to India he was ousted from his office, in 2008 the Rudd government joined Washington in the Nuclear Supplier group against India only to leave Australia with an untenable and illogical policy.  Détente was perceived only when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard lifted the ban on sale of uranium to India, she also made a historic visit to India which has been considered highly successful in diplomatic circles as both countries have finally realized their shared strategic interest in a stable Indo-Pacific.  India’s attraction to Australia has grown as a policy to secure Australia as a diplomatic counterweight to China when to Beijing’s great irritation India is spoken of as a rising power other than China, despite being one third of China’s economy. The United States has declared its own interest in supporting India’s rise. For Australia engaging with arising India has been more complex than engaging with rising China, a powerful India may or may not be as benign as a powerful China. It is also hard to imagine India getting involved in a war of US and its allies against China or Australia siding with India in a Sino-Indian conflict. The promise of building a close Indo-Australian relationship lies in resolving the problem of an impatient Australia and a non-committal India. It will require transcending of troubled history, ill matched personalities with ultimate understanding and adaptability. Canberra also has to be aware of not being marginalized in a diplomatic enclosure between New Delhi and Washington.

Australia plays an important role in maintaining and promoting regional stability in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. To uphold its superior status Australia has started working with United States negotiating a Trans Pacific Partnership for promoting trade and investment liberalization in Asia-Pacific region. Australia has also announced a significant boost in its military air power. The new Defence White Paper is a revolution clearly highlighting Australia’s growing military priorities as India and China continue to beef up their navies in Indian Ocean. The new strategy examines the growing importance of Indian Ocean region as route of global oil shipments. The strategy also stresses that US and China needs to improve their relations at a strategic level and that Australia does not believe in choosing between allies.  The new military document does not expressly state Australia’s military programs it does promise an increase in defense funding. Terrorist attacks on Australians in Indonesia have led Australia to share concerns with United States over Islamist militancy in South East Asia and beyond. 

However for Australia the Sino-Japanese Korean triangle will be the centre of security and economic game for at least the next decade. The strategists of Australia urgently feel the need to secure their safety and prosperity.  The Indian Ocean presents a difficult challenge because it lacks a US centered alliance to which Australia can join, it can be achieved by bilateral partnership with India and Indonesia. The strategists have pointed out Australia’s greater interest in dealing with politics closer to home; supporting transition of RAMSI, encouraging Fiji to return to democracy, working with Papua New Guinea for securing developmental gains. Australia therefore has been rightly absorbed in regional politics with three biggest countries of Melanesia. For Australia security does not lie in combating internal threats but also making most of opportunities, designing the international environment not only to prevent emergence of security threats but also securing larger benefits for Australia.