Why Oceania Matters

Oceania has often been neglected in US foreign policy discussion. As attention shifts to Asia, this needs to change.

Since World War II, the United States has devoted few resources to the promotion of peace and stability in Oceania. Instead, it has relied on Australia and New Zealand to maintain Western strategic influence in the region. However, faced with a rising China and other emerging security issues, many analysts believe that the United States can no longer take Oceania for granted. Indeed, without the support of the United States and other regional powers, some question whether Australia and New Zealand will be able to sustain their roles as the sole guarantors of peace and stability in the region indefinitely.

Few regional analysts have been as vocal as Ernest Bower, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ recently launched Pacific Partners Initiative (PPI),on the issue.

‘Very few US policymakers understand the importance (of Australian and New Zealander contributions to peace and security in Asia since World War II)…these are important US partners, but their views aren’t sufficiently reflected in our policies. This has resulted in US policy not being robust enough to manage security issues in Asia-Pacific in the next century,’ he says. ‘If we don’t shift the policy focus, then we will be behaving negligently, and tomorrow’s policymakers have to deal with the repercussions of this relative inattention in the future. We must recognize that the security challenges in Asia are becoming more complex and it’s going to take a fulsome effort, engaging everybody (to ensure peace and stability in Asia-Pacific) in the next 20-30 years.’

Bower strongly believes that one of the best ways to shift policymaker focus toward the Asia-Pacific is to increase awareness of the importance of Oceania to US national interests through Track II diplomacy. Bower says he hopes that PPI, which he now heads with former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Mike Green, will go some way to doing this. In addition to other programming, PPI is aimed at providing a trilateral Track II dialogue driven by CSIS and leading think thanks in Australia and New Zealand. It’s also the first major initiative of its kind by a US think tank.

For those unfamiliar with process, Track II diplomacy provides a mechanism for non-government officials to tackle complex security issues. Its goal is to provide an informal forum for the exchange of information and ideas between leading subject matter experts. When implemented correctly, Track II diplomacy provides an open, non-hostile environment that facilitates dialogue reflecting the diversity of expert opinion. Such dialogue often produces ideas that influence the actions of policymakers and other decision-makers.

Bower says he believes that PPI will provide an important contribution to discourse on US policy in Asia-Pacific.

‘The US government currently doesn’t have the capability to address issues in Oceania. The government tends to be reactive not strategic in this region. And think tanks aren’t looking at issues in Oceania. This has created a screaming gap in focus on Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island Country security issues,’ Bower says. ‘We need to think about what should be the US strategy for engagement in Asia-Pacific over the next 20 to 30 years.’

‘The view that Asia is just East and Southeast Asia lacks an important characteristic – grand strategy. It’s like playing geostrategic small-ball. The US has a responsibility to catch up and conceptualize Asian security more broadly to include Oceania and South Asia. It simply can’t leave vast areas of the region untouched from a policy view. This creates vacuums which others, including those who may not be aligned with the long term interests of the United States and our allies and partners, can exploit.’

Although the clear focus of PPI’s Track II dialogue is on increasing awareness within the United States, Bower believes that the initiative will make significant contributions abroad as well. ‘Neither Australia nor New Zealand possess a large number of independent think tanks (capable of engaging in Track II dialogue),’ he says. ‘We hope that PPI will encourage more independence of think tanks in Australia and New Zealand beyond the Lowy Institute (which is partnering with CSIS on PPI). We also remain open to wider participation in PPI in the future, including possible partnerships with think tanks from Japan, China, ASEAN, India, South Korea, and France.’

While it will certainly take time to determine the effectiveness of this new initiative, Washington’s  Beltway almost certainly will experience fuller Asia-Pacific coverage thanks to PPI. This will be critical for US policymakers, who soon will need to tackle the difficult question of reprioritizing Asia as the most important region for US national security interests in the century ahead.