In London this week, leaders from 53 sovereign states are meeting for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Nearly all of these states are former British colonies, or states with historical ties to the U.K., that comprise the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth). Although the forum may seem quaint, an institution harking back to the colonial era, its attempt to reposition itself as a modern multilateral body does provide a widely diverse range of countries an opportunity to engage with each other and attempt to find areas of common interest and concern.
Although no longer a body that defaults to British leadership, the Commonwealth demonstrates that although the United Kingdom’s relative power has waned, the legacy of its colonial endeavors still affords the country significant global connections, especially in the Pacific. Alongside Australia and New Zealand, there are nine other Pacific states in the Commonwealth: Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
It is these legacy connections that the Australian minister for international development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, sought to maneuver during a speech at the Overseas Development Institute on the sidelines of the CHOGM meeting earlier in the week. In her speech, the minister noted that upon exiting the European Union the U.K. would have considerable funds released from the EU’s overseas development assistance programs, and she encouraged London to use these toward development assistance in the Pacific.
In a second speech at Chatham House on the same day, the minister highlighted the difficulties Pacific Islands states currently face. Citing the 2017 World Risk Index, the minister noted that five of the 15 countries most at risk are in the Pacific, and that these risks are compounded by the distant geographies of these Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and limited financial resources they have to both prepare for and respond to crises, be they natural disasters or otherwise. The remote locations and vast internal compositions of these states also makes achieving education and health standards common in more connected areas of the world difficult. These are all areas where the U.K. has both the resources and expertise to assist.
While Fierravanti-Wells’ remit is bound to developmental issues, there is an increasing recognition within the Australian government of the holistic nature of regional engagement, with developmental and soft power initiatives fundamentally linked to regional security. Australia’s recent foreign policy White Paper identified its own increased engagement in the Pacific as a primary objective, but with the increased activity and influence of China in the region, encouraging like-minded states, such as the U.K. and France, in greater regional engagement is becoming a more pronounced balancing tactic.
The South Pacific forms an integral part of wider Indo-Pacific security, and the U.K., like France, has recognized that its interests increasingly lie within Asia’s growth and development. London is therefore seeking to become an important security provider within the region. Earlier this month the U.K. opened a new permanent naval base in Bahrain. While the base is set to become the Royal Navy’s hub in the Middle East, the facility also provides a launch pad for operations in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim. This naval expansion provides assurance to its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific that the U.K. still maintains significant regional capabilities.
The Royal Navy currently has three naval vessels visiting the western Pacific and is presently assisting U.S., Japanese, and South Korean forces in enforcing shipping sanctions on North Korea. In addition to this, for the second year, British naval vessels have joined the annual, five-month, French “Jeanne D’Arc” deployment that launched in February and which makes stopovers in India, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, and Singapore, before extending to French bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. This increased British activity in the Indo-Pacific has the potential to encourage the concept of a “Quad + 2” as the primary security alliance within the Indo-Pacific, should the concept gain further momentum (something Japan seems keen on exploring)
Although the British withdrew their troops from Singapore in 1971, it continues to maintain a logistical base there to provide repair, refuel, and resupply capabilities for ships of the Australian, British, and New Zealand navies as well as those from other Commonwealth countries under the auspices of Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA), an agreement between the U.K., Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia for military consultations on regional activity. The FPDA was originally intended as a deterrent to Indonesian expansionism, but its modern application would now be directed toward concern over Chinese power projection in the South China Sea. This becomes highly relevant to issues of development in the South Pacific as China is known to use its development programs with Pacific Islands to gain support for its activities in the South China Sea.
Australia is seeking to encourage states like the U.K. to also understand this holistic approach to regional security and engagement with a greater application of development assistance to Pacific Island states. The hope is that in combination with like-minded states, Australia and New Zealand (which have been using similar tactics on the U.K. during CHOGM), will be able to diminish the influence of Chinese aid in the South Pacific, and its knock-on implications for wider Indo-Pacific security. The prospect of London’s increased engagement in the Pacific has been welcomed by Tonga and the prospect of forging stronger partnerships would surely be welcomed by other Pacific Island states as well.
However, the question remains whether the U.K. can politically preserve or enhance its international presence. With both major political parties in the U.K. being either captured by, or in thrall to, more insular and revisionist sentiments, there must be concerns about the country’s reliability. Increased cooperation with former colonial states in the South Pacific, as well as a desire to create a stronger naval presence in the Indo-Pacific, may be encouraged within the U.K.’s defense and foreign ministries, but political forces may overwhelm such established perspectives. It remains unknown where British foreign policy will head after the next election. Australia and other Pacific states will be hoping in the meantime to lock in greater British institutional regional engagements that any political shifts might find difficult to untangle.