Conversation with Dr. Anne-Marie Schleich: “Oceania will not disappear that soon”

Conversation with Dr. Anne-Marie Schleich: “Oceania will not disappear that soon”

Global Review had the pleasure to have a conversation with Dr. Anne-Marie Schleich about Australia, New Zealand and Oceania and their role in the Sino- American conflict.

Dr. Anne-Marie Schleich was a German diplomat from 1979 until 2016. Most recently, she was the German Ambassador to New Zealand and seven Pacific Island States from 2012 to 2016. She was the German Consul- General in Melbourne, Australia from 2008 to 2012 and has also served in Singapore, Bangkok, Islamabad and London. From 1998 to 2001 she was the Deputy Head of the Asia Pacific, Africa and Latin America Department, Foreign Affairs Directorate, Office of the German Chancellor, Berlin. In 2001 she was appointed Head of the Department for International Environmental Policies at the German Foreign Office.

Global Review: Dr. Schleich, after the dissolution of SEATO in the 70s pact which geopolitical role did Australia and New Zealand play for the USA, also now in the perspective of the escalating Sino-American conflict?

Dr. Schleich: In the last few years, we have seen intense discussions about the long-term strategic commitment of the US in the Asia Pacific region. At the same time China has shown a growing assertiveness in many ways. Australia’s and New Zealand’s geographic isolation has led them, especially Australia, to maintain a strong military partnership with the US. The two Pacific countries also cooperate closely with the US under the Five Eyes Intelligence Sharing Agreement (as well as with Canada and the UK). The origins of this intelligence alliance date back to the post WW II era.

In the defense area, the 1951 ANZUS treaty between the US, Australia and New Zealand is the foundation for the US military presence in the Pacific Ocean. The three countries fought side by side in the various wars since WW I and WW II in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Afghanistan and the Middle East.  An enhanced US military cooperation with Australia has to be seen in the light of the previous US President Obama announcement of a “Pivot to Asia”, which he announced during his visit to Canberra in 2011. President Obama then wanted the US to shift away from the Middle East towards the “neglected” and booming Asia Pacific region. Two of the five principles for the reengagement with Asia were a greater cooperation with China as well as a commitment to security in the region. This would be supported by a strong military presence as well as the strengthening of alliances with regional partners such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN. Australia was the perfect ally for this “Pivot” strategy. However, the “Pivot” with its main focus on defense, was perceived by China as a US strategy to contain China militarily. By putting Asia at the center of its new security strategy, the Obama administration inadvertently made it seem to China that it was the actual target. Obama’s strategy was thus flawed from the beginning and seems to have contributed to an increase in tensions with China.  

Since 2016, we have witnessed the Trump Administration’s vacillating foreign policies towards Asia. To name just a few: the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), a see-saw relationship with North Korea, a stand-offish, hostile political position towards China, massive tariff impositions and sanctions against China and other Asian countries including US partners like Japan and India, a complex relationship with India, a somewhat reduced importance of ASEAN to the US, a symbolic renaming of the US Asia policy as an Indo-Pacific Policy and a new name for the now so-called “US Indo-Pacific Command” in Hawaii.

As to New Zealand, it played a supportive role in various international conflicts and assisted the US in the fight against terrorism after September 11, especially in Afghanistan. But New Zealand has always been a more distant ally of the US. In 1985 it banned US nuclear warships in its waters. From then on, the military relationship between New Zealand and the US was frozen for almost 30 years. It was President Obama’s “Pivot towards Asia” policy which brought New Zealand back into the US fold. The Washington Declaration signed by the American and New Zealand defence ministers in June 2012 was the official icebreaker. The agreement provided a framework to strengthen bilateral defence ties. For the first time since 1984 New Zealand troops took part in that year in the biannual US led Rim of the Pacific military exercises. This reopening of their strategic cooperation culminated in the symbolic visit by a US naval ship to New Zealand in December 2016.

Both New Zealand and Australia have supported recent US policy positions directed against China such as condemming China for disqualifying Hongkong legislators, backing Taiwan’s WHO participation and highlighting the treatment of Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjian province. The new Labour government under PM Jacinda Ardern has been vocal in its criticism of China but has so far – unlike its Australian neighbour – avoided an open confrontation with China. Another common denominator between Australia and New Zealand is their interest in stability at their doorsteps, the South Pacific Island countries. New Zealand’s other strategy priority is the protection of its own vast Exclusive Economic Zone.

With deep worries about a growing instability in the Indo-Pacific region and as a precaution against a potential American disengagement, Australia is focusing more on the Indo-Pacific and realigning itself with the two old Quad partners and like-minded middle powers, Japan and India. It is also reaching out to some ASEAN countries, especially its closest neighbour and ASEAN member Indonesia. Both countries have recently concluded the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. In the next decade, Australia will also invest a staggering A$ 270 billion into new defence capabilities. Australia’s and New Zealand’s trade dependence on China (as well as their dependance on China in the tourism and education sector) has created a political and economic dilemma at a time when investment, security and military ties with the US have been intensified under the Trump Administration. The two Pacific countries are trying to navigate these tricky geopolitical waters.

Global Review: What is your assessment of the ongoing China – Australia conflict?

Dr. Schleich: Since April 2020, Australia and China have been embroiled in escalating trade and diplomatic disputes. The relationship between the two countries has constantly deteriorated and is currently at a critical point. Developments on both sides could be right out of a playbook on ‘how to wreck bilateral trade and diplomatic relations’ and exemplify a total breakdown of bilateral diplomacy.

The seesawing conflict started in 2018, when Australia barred Huawei from providing 5G network services in Australia because of security concerns. In February 2020, the Australian Dumping Commission initiated or continued anti-dumping duties on various Chinese steel and aluminium products. And in April 2020, Australia pushed for an international inquiry into the origins of Coronavirus and gathered substantial support among other WHO member countries. It was a move which the Chinese Deputy Ambassador to Canberra termed “shocking”. China retaliated in May and the following months with import suspensions of Australian beef, barley, cotton, thermal coal, timber, copper and lobster on the basis of ‘health or consumer protection issues’ or of ‘quota restrictions’. It also imposed higher tariffs on many other Australian goods such as wines and issued Australia travel warnings for Chinese tourists and students. In May, the Australian government decided to continue imposing anti-dumping duties on Chinese imports. In turn, Australia introduced stricter rules for foreign investments in sensitive assets in June. It also suspended in July its extradition treaty with Hongkong in response to China’s introduction of security legislation in Hongkong. In December, Australian Prime Minister Morrison directly responded to an image on the Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman twitter account depicting a (likely) fake image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghani child. In a press conference the PM called it repugnant and demanded an apology from China which never came. In an additional step-up of disputes, Australia in mid-December lodged an official appeal with WTO against China’s anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties imposed on Australian barley in May. Also in December, the Australian Parliament passed a law giving the federal government the power to veto any agreement made by Australian states or universities with foreign countries. This move was widely seen as directed at alleged Chinese interference in Australian politics and was possibly another trigger for bilateral relations to further deteriorate.

Verbal mudslinging, blame games and accusations have increased the temperature in the bilateral spat. China has become increasingly vocal and has blamed Australia for deteriorating relations. Chinese diplomats have also shown a more confrontational and nationalistic approach in their public pronouncements on the various escalations on the Australian side. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao said: “Certain people in Australia have clung to a Cold war mentality and ideological biases…”. The same sharpness goes for the remarks of PM Morrison in mid-November “Australia is a liberal democracy and will not back down…”. There has been no direct contact between Australian and Chinese ministers since April 2020.

China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, largest export destination and largest source of imports. “China remained Australia’s largest two-way goods and services trading partner in 2018–19, accounting for around 26 per cent (A$235 billion) of total trade. (No. 2 Japan: 89 billion = 10 % of total trade). China was Australia’s largest export destination (A$153 billion or 33 per cent of Australia’s total exports) as well as import source (A$82 billion or 19 per cent of Australia’s import bill).”(Austrade) China’s blacklisting of a wide range of Australian commodities and food products has posed serious problems for the affected Australia’s exporters. The government has promised to look into assistance for exporters and also encouraged them to diversify to other markets. This will not be an easy task in the short run considering Australia’s “asymmetrical trade with China” (D. Uren) in a number of goods with few alternative destinations. Australia’s and New Zealand’s trade dependence on China (as well their dependance on China in the tourism and education sector) has created a political and economic dilemma at a time when security and military ties with the US have been intensified under the Trump Administration.

The downturn in Australia-China relations is directly related to Australia’s continued strong and close relationship with the US, especially during the Trump administration. At a time of an increasingly hostile geopolitical tug of war between China and the US, Australia, a regional Pacific Middle Power, is concerned about growing tensions in the Asia Pacific region. It has, therefore, recently shored up its relations with its other old Quad partners, Japan and India and US. Signs of this increased cooperation are: the visit to Japan by PM Morrison in December and Australia first-time participation since 2007 in the India-led maritime exercise ‘Malabar’ together with the US and Japan in November – moves that must have irked China.

The China policy of the Australian centre-right coalition government (Liberal Party and National Party) seems to have played increasingly to a home audience. A number of the government’s parliamentarians belong to a vocal anti-China group. A growing anti-China mood in the Australian political establishment has also been largely supported by a predominantly conservative media landscape belonging to the Rupert Murdoch press conglomerate. It is interesting to note that Liberal Party MP Andrew Hastie, who has become known since 2019 for his acidic criticism of China, was appointed Assistant Defence Minister in PM Morrison’s cabinet reshuffle in December 2020. Critical voices question Australia’s diplomatic strategy and term it short-sighted. The Labour opposition, especially foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong, has criticised the government’s China policy as being inconsistent and demanded to put bilateral relations back on a more normal track.

What might be needed now is quiet diplomacy and a reduction in nationalistic and assertive tones. Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans demanded to lower the temperature and go back to a more balanced relationship. Interestingly, the new New Zealand Foreign Minister Mahuta already offered that New Zealand might help negotiate a truce between Australia and China. And in fact, a mediator behind the scenes, less play to home audiences in both China and Australia, less nationalistic grand-standing, cooperation on pressing international issues (Gareth Evans called for “working together on global public goods”) and some quiet discussions behind closed doors might just do the trick. It may be the right way to make diplomacy work again. An even slightly improved US-China relationship under US President Biden would also be paramount to create a more conducive geopolitical framework. But it will certainly take a lot to restore confidence between China and Australia.

Global Review: Which interests and relations have Australia and New Zealand in Oceania? And what about the competition between China and Taiwan in Oceania ?

Dr. Schleich: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the EU, Germany and the US remain big donors to the twelve South Pacific Island Countries, but China is increasing its aid footprint in the South Pacific. China has recently increased its economic and aid activities and seeks to have a stronger diplomatic and strategic foothold. It has bolstered its ties with most South Pacific Island countries and will soon be the dominant economic force in the South Pacific. Australia is about to lose its traditional political influence in its traditional “regional backyard”. This is due to the growing Chinese aid, investment and trade in the South Pacific, a previous cut in Australia’s development assistance, an Australian government which is denying climate change and more assertive Pacific Island countries. China is fast catching up but its aid to the South Pacific Island countries poses the risk of unsustainable debt and political dependence on China. Recent policy recalibrations by the Australian Government under Prime Minister Morrison through the new so-called “Step-Up” in the South Pacific with increased development assistance and investments to “Australia’s backyard” could be too little, too late.

Australia and New Zealand are in danger of losing their traditional political influence in the South Pacific due to four factors: the growing activities of China, a previous cut in Australia’s development budget and previous economic and political sanctions by Australia and New Zealand towards Fiji until 2014 which the present Fijian government has not forgiven. Ambivalent positions of Australia and New Zealand regarding climate change issues have been viewed critically by the South Pacific island countries, which are seriously threatened by climate change.

The competition between China and Taiwan in the South Pacific is continuing. In 2019, two Pacific Island countries Kiribati and the Solomon Islands ‘defected’ to China after having had longstanding relations with Taiwan. In April 2020, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, Taiwan started a first round of ‘international humanitarian assistance’ under the slogan ‘Taiwan can help’.  About 1 million masks were sent to four South Pacific Island Countries, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau. These four countries are among the fifteen countries that officially recognise Taiwan, receive development assistance from Taiwan and are considered Taiwan’s close diplomatic allies.

Fiji and the other Pacific countries have become more assertive in the last decade. There is a positive trend towards stronger cooperation among South Pacific island countries within the framework of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and other Pacific institutions. South Pacific leaders basically welcome increased Chinese aid and investment as it helps them with infrastructure projects that the Pacific governments urgently need. But it also poses a risk of political dependence and unsustainable debt for these island countries. In future, it might enable China to exert significant political leverage over Pacific countries, especially on international issues affecting China’s core national interests.

Global Review: As the coronavirus pandemic began to ravage the globe, U.S. Army Pacific created Task Force Oceania, an effort to deploy two-person teams to island nations in the region. In Palau, for example, the U.S. military helped build an airstrip and landed a C-130 as part of Defender Pacific 2020, an exercise designed to put the Army’s new operating concept to the test at a large scale. Is the USA building a military structure in the second island chain to support the first island chain around Taiwan, the South and East China Sea ?

Dr. Schleich: The US considers the South Pacific as an important strategic area to safeguard its back-sea lanes in the Pacific. It has an aid programme to the Pacific which is spread over numerous (soft) aid programmes. The bulk of this aid, however, goes to the Marshall Islands (which has a compact of free association with the US, recognizes Taiwan and is home to sensitive US radar and antimissile installations). Recently, USAID has increased climate related support for island countries such as in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and has started military cooperation through US Airforce exercises with Palau, another ally of Taiwan. These are signs that the US is recognizing the need to have a stronger presence in the South Pacific.

China also has strategic interests in access to Pacific ports for its fishing fleets and its Navy as well as for seabed mining. The US has raised security concerns with Pacific Island countries about Huawei Marine’s bid to build an undersea telecommunications cable linking Nauru, Kiribati and Micronesia. And in 2018/19, rumours surfaced about a Chinese Government offer to establish a permanent naval base in Vanuatu. Australia has, therefore, decided to develop together with the US the naval base on Manus Island in PNG. China’s financing and construction of a deep sea port in southern PNG, which is close to the strategically important Torres Strait near Australia, is another concern for Australia. Strategically located ports would give China important footholds in the South Pacific, the backyard of Australia.

The US so far remains the dominant defense and intelligence power in the Pacific. But the Lowy Institute Asia Power Index concludes that China is “rapidly closing in on the US”.

Global Review: How will climate change affect the South Pacific Island Countries and Australia? Will the South Pacific islands survive or been flooded by rising sea levels? Are there any evacuation or emergency plans? Will Oceania disappear?

Dr. Schleich: Oceania will not disappear that soon but the South Pacific Island countries in particular are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Last year, we have witnessed the devastating bushfires in Australia. However, the present conservative Australian government continues to deny the effects of climate change and to adhere to carbon-based policies.

In contrast, the twelve South Pacific Island countries share similar challenges such as small populations, limited resources, limited access to international markets, vulnerability to rising sea levels, lengthening droughts and increased cyclone intensity. They only have a small population of altogether appr. 10.5 million inhabitants and a combined area of 528,000 square km and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of about 20 million square kilometres with 7,500 atolls and islands. People in the Pacific Islands depend on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism for their livelihood.

South Pacific island countries are struggling to mitigate the serious effects of climate change and it is a question of survival for them. According to a 2013 World Bank report, Pacific island nations are among the world’s most physically and economically vulnerable countries to climate change and extreme weather incidents. Climate change is the greatest challenge threatening the livelihood of the island populations. It has badly affected these islands because they are low lying and exposed to rising sea levels, frequent tidal surges and coral reef damage. These developments pose developmental, environmental and safety problems, they threaten their climate security.

In 2012, the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, told the UN General Assembly: “Climate Change threatens the existence and livelihood of our population”. He also called for “a new phase – a paradigm shift where the Pacific needs to chart its own course and lead global thinking in crucial areas such as climate change, ocean governance, sustainable development. Our survival is in question…. We have no choice but to engage even more aggressively internationally, because the key to our survival will depend on whether international action on climate change is taken or not.”

Things in the South Pacific have been moving: In August 2019 the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) summit produced a significant milestone: the Kainaki II Declaration. It declared that a climate change crisis is facing the South Pacific Island nations and urges the parties to meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement. It also demands a simplified access to international climate finance, the Green Climate Fund. In May 2019 in Fiji, the PIF hosted UN Secretary-General Guterres who also visited Tuvalu and Vanuatu which are among the countries worst affected by climate change. Guterres vowed “…their voice is loud and clear. Climate change cannot be stopped by small island countries alone, it has to be stopped by the rest of the world… It is enlightened self-interest from all decision-makers around the world because it’s not only the Pacific that is at stake, it’s the whole planet.“

The Presidency of Fiji of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UNFCCC in 2017 was a highlight of a South Pacific Country’s international environmental engagement. In a most unusual cooperation, Germany assisted Fiji in the organisation and hosted over 30 000 participants in Bonn. Fijian PM Bainimarama was able to effectively project the concerns of the other South Pacific Countries. Fiji was also behind the establishment of the Talanoa Dialogue’which provides input from stakeholders and expert institutions as well as Parties to the Convention during a preparatory phase of COPs. Other outcomes of the Fiji/Bonn COP were the further development of the rules for the Paris Agreement and an agreement on how to conduct the first post-Paris stock-taking of collective climate action.

In August 2018, Germany –  together with the Pacific Island country Nauru – co-initiated the ‘Group of Friends on Climate and Security’ which has now more than 40 members. As a follow-up to that initiative, a ‘Climate and Security Conference’ in Berlin was opened in June 2019 by the German Foreign Minister and the President of Nauru. The conference was intended as a “wake-up call that the climate crisis is not just an environmental and development issue, but represents a core risk to global peace and prosperity”. The German Development Cooperation (GIZ) has assisted the South Pacific with 10-year adaptation to climate change projects (“Coping with Climate Change in the Pacific Island Region”) and other environmental programmes, often in cooperation with the Pacific’s technical agency SPC.

South Pacific Island countries have raised their profile on climate change and climate security in regional and in UN institutions in the last decade. They managed to overcome some of their internal regional and sub-regional divisions, they coordinated their respective positions in the Pacific regional institution PIF and they partnered countries like Germany and the EU. This “New Pacific Diplomacy” helped to increase their voices in global institutions. 

Australia with its continued coal and gas addiction and the climate-threatened South Pacific Island Countries sit in opposite climate camps. If Australia continues not to listen to Pacific Islands climate voices, it is doomed to further lose out in its geographical ‘backyard’.

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