While media attention typically focuses on the hard power role of the US military in the Pacific, the US Navy also invests significant time and energy in the soft power potential of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the region. In the first of a series of dispatches from Washington, ASEAN Beat writer Eddie Walsh looks at the background of the US Pacific Fleet-backed annual Pacific Partnership mission – who is involved, what is the point and how much it all costs.
Over the past decade, stability operations have emerged as a core mission of the US military. In response, the US Navy established the Pacific Partnership – an annual training and readiness mission sponsored by the US Pacific Fleet that evolved out of the US military's response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The mission is aimed at enabling the United States to conduct ongoing Humanitarian Civic Assistance (HCA) and theatre security missions in the US Pacific Command Area of Responsibility in concert with regional partners and non-governmental organizations. It also provides a means of demonstrating US strategic commitment to the region.
So who’s included in this year‘s itinerary? Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Micronesia are all listed as ports of call – nations that highlight the type of nation targeted through the programme. Over the past decade, many of this year's recipient states have experienced serious domestic instability, from the separatist movement that led to independence in East Timor to the domestic political violence in Papua New Guinea and Tonga. They’ve also tended to become heavily dependent on foreign aid and lack the capacity to provide basic social services, especially in the event of catastrophic crises.
Indeed, such factors explain the preponderance of weak and failing states throughout the region. As a result, the Failed States Index perennially ranks East Timor (currently 18th), Papua New Guinea (57th), and the Solomon Islands (43rd) high on its list of troubled states.
But US engagement with such countries doesn’t come cheap. This year’s Pacific Partnership is set to cost US taxpayers $20 million in total – almost $4 million for each port of call. It seems a hefty price for peacetime operations in remote areas of the Pacific. But the US military insists that such missions are central to US national interests.
‘(T)he sustainable projects we complete side-by-side with host nation personnel increase quality of service and quality of life for the citizens of the countries we are visiting, all of which will be conducive to increased security and stability in the region,’ says US Navy Capt. Jesse A. Wilson Jr., who serves as mission commander of Pacific Partnership 2011. ‘This is a fundamental objective of the US Navy’s maritime strategy and US Pacific Command’s end-state objectives to develop cooperative security arrangements and strengthen and expand relationships with allies and partners.’
Wilson says he sees the recent natural disasters in the Pacific, including Australia’s Queensland floods, New Zealand’s Christchurch earthquake, and Japan’s Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as a constant reminder the United States must ‘be ready and trained to operate collectively and effectively with our partner nations throughout the Pacific.’
The widely-praised US tsunami relief effort in 2004 underscores the potential benefits of such soft power missions. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq saw global public opinion of the United States plunge, not least in Southeast Asia. However, Wilson says that following the US tsunami response, ‘public and military perceptions and attitudes about the United States improved markedly’ throughout the region, particularly Indonesia.
But it’s not just the United States that’s taking a keen interest in developing strategic partnerships in the Pacific – Australia and New Zealand are both also getting in on the act. Setting aside their roles in the Pacific Partnership, the two bear responsibility for the majority of support for ongoing military peace and stability missions across the region.
‘Australia has always seen its immediate neighbors through a security prism. Strategic denial to potentially hostile foreign forces has been the underlying rationale,’ says Benjamin Reilly, visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. However, with little fear of fragile island states being seized by hostile powers, ‘the myriad problems of weak states and the potential consequences of state failure’ have emerged as the new motivations for strategic engagement.
So, is the centrality of Pacific island nations matched by an understanding among Australians of their strategic importance? Reilly says not really, but adds that despite this, the Pacific will remain an important focus for Australian security strategists. ‘There’s no "end goal" for Australian involvement,’ he says. ‘There is no "exit strategy" from one's own neighborhood.’
It’s a point that was underscored well by Graham Fortune, former New Zealand Defence Minister, who summarized the strategic consequence of all this in a 2005 speech. Back then, he argued that New Zealand ‘cannot always expect our allies and friends to be giving the same attention to Oceania’s problems that we feel an obligation to do.’
Still, although Australia and New Zealand do much of the heavy lifting in terms of multilateral stability initiatives in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, countries from outside the neighborhood are showing an increasing interest.
With the gradual decline of US ability to sustain regional hegemony, Japan and France, two other Pacific partners this year, are playing a more active military role in the Pacific.
For Japan, missions such as the Pacific Partnership provide an opportunity to leverage military capabilities to project soft power influence. This year, for example, Japan will contribute doctors to support the mission when it calls on East Timor and Micronesia.
France for its part has been more reserved than most other partners in promotion of its partnership in the Pacific. In the United States, the French Embassy has said little of the event and was unavailable for comment for this piece. However, according to the US Navy, France ‘sent a Puma helicopter during the call on Tonga and Vanuatu and is providing medical personnel for Papua New Guinea. France also plans to increase participation in future PP missions.’
With Association of Southeast Asian Nations members also supporting this year’s mission – both Singapore and Malaysia are said to be sending medical personnel to join the team in Oceania – the Pacific Partnership appears here to stay.