AUKUS subs deal draws mixed reactions in region baffled by ‘Indo-Pacific’ label

Stephen Wright
AUKUS subs deal draws mixed reactions in region baffled by ‘Indo-Pacific’ label Samoa Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa (right) answers a question from the audience during a Lowy Institute event in Canberra, Australia, as Michael Fullilove, the institute’s executive director, looks on, March 20, 2023.
Petri Kurkaa for the Lowy Institute

Samoa’s leader knows the nation of some 200,000 people looms small on the world map, yet it disconcerted her that they’d been lumped into a region conjured up by American and Japanese officials – the “Indo-Pacific,” which stretches from the Indian Ocean to the U.S. West Coast.

The surreal artifice of this was one of the truth bombs dropped by Fiame Naomi Mataafa, Samoa’s prime minister, during a plain-talking speech and conversation at a Lowy Institute event in Canberra, the Australian capital, on Monday.

“Everyone talks to us about the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and I think there’s an assumption there that we know what they’re talking about, and actually we don’t. So we’re having to inform ourselves as best we can,” Fiame said. 

“Given that we occupy a very large space of one of those oceans one might have thought that having some input from the Pacific islands might have been a good idea,” she said.

Fiame appeared at the think-tank’s event a week to the day that the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom announced details of the plan for the Australians to acquire nuclear-powered submarines to help America police the Indo-Pacific super region.

The so-called AUKUS security pact between Canberra, Washington and London is one of several moving parts grouped under the “Indo-Pacific,” the U.S. strategic concept of the moment that analysts say aims to contain China.

After several decades of rapid growth, the Asian superpower’s economy rivals the United States in size and it is rapidly building up its military arsenal.

From left to right: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak deliver remarks on the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. (AUKUS) partnership, after a trilateral meeting at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, March 13, 2023. [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Australia’s ambition to have its own nuclear-propelled submarines was first announced in late 2021 and provoked anxiety among some countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Under the plans announced last week, Australia will buy up to five U.S. nuclear submarines from early next decade and also build its own using British and American technology.

Pacific island countries reacted to the latest details with a mixture of support, resignation and disquiet, reflecting diverse interests in the vast ocean region. 

A spokesman for David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, said the U.S.-allied north Pacific country “trusts that AUKUS is in the region’s security interests and trusts that Australia will continue to adhere to regional and international best practices on nuclear non-proliferation.”

The comments from Fiame, who also said she understood Australia’s reasons for acquiring nuclear submarines, underline the challenges for Pacific island nations at a time when their region is increasingly a focal point of the U.S.-China rivalry.

Some nations have benefited from China’s interest in the Pacific through aid and infrastructure, and they also hope to gain from renewed U.S. attention. At the same time, they are also being swept up by the agendas of large powers.

“We are faced with the perplexities of varying versions of the Indo-Pacific strategies,” said Fiame, Samoa’s first female prime minister.

“The underlying lack of understanding of the Pacific countries of how and when the two large ocean spaces morphed into the Indo-Pacific and the rationale behind the concept” is in part the fault of development partners, she said, referring to countries such as Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand. 

In the Pacific, she added, “we feel our partners have fallen short of acknowledging the integrity of Pacific leadership and the responsibility they carry for every decision made as a collective and individually.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, at the State Department in Washington, Sept. 29, 2022. [Reuters/Sarah Silbiger/Pool]

According to the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank based in New Delhi, the Indo-Pacific as a concept has its origins with a German scholar in the 1920s and was given prominence in recent times by a Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in a 2007 speech to India’s parliament. 

The phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” then began to appear in Japanese government statements and, by late last decade, was moving to the center of U.S. foreign policy. 

The widespread adoption of the concept of a super region, the foundation said in a 2021 article, reflects the shift in global power to east from west. Its “seeming lack of rationality” shows that regional boundaries reflect political interests rather than geography or logic, the foundation said.

Worries about nukes

Since the 2021 announcement of AUKUS, officials from Australia, the United Kingdom and United States have worked to allay anxiety about the nuclear subs deal including emphasizing the submarines will not pack nuclear weapons.

A Pacific nation official, who did not want to be identified, told BenarNews that their government had received six face-to-face briefings about AUKUS as well as formal diplomatic communications. 

Eleven Pacific island nations, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are signatories to the 1986 Rarotonga Treaty, which declared the South Pacific to be a nuclear-free zone.

The treaty was partly a response to the legacy of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. Between 1946 and 1966, the United States, France and the United Kingdom carried out some 300 nuclear detonations in the Pacific.

The mushroom cloud from Ivy Mike (the codename given to the test) rises above the Pacific Ocean after the detonation of a nuclear bomb over the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands at 7:15 a.m. (local time), Nov. 1, 1952. It was the world’s first test of a full-scale thermonuclear device, in which part of the explosive yield comes from nuclear fusion. [AP Photo/Los Alamos National Laboratory]

The foreign minister of Tuvalu, a group of low-lying atolls that are home to 12,000 people, directly criticized the AUKUS plan.

“The 2011 Fukushima disaster highlighted the danger of nuclear power to human health and the environment,” Foreign Minister Simon Kofe said on Twitter. 

“As we discuss nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific, we must also address concerns about increased militarization of the region,” he said in his tweet. It was responding directly to Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong by encapsulating her own tweet applauding the nuclear subs agreement.

Justin Tkatchenko, Papua New Guinea’s minister of foreign affairs, did not directly comment on AUKUS when asked about the three-nation submarine deal at a press conference earlier this week.

Instead, he pointed out that Papua New Guinea was working toward ratifying the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

“It’s now in NEC [National Executive Council] for final approval to go to the floor of parliament to be ratified so that Papua New Guinea is totally against any nuclear weapon in PNG or in the Pacific region,” he said. 


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