The National, Tuesday August 07th, 2012
IN the days of the Cold War, the Pacific firmly belonged to the United States’ Pacific Fleet.
The Pacific consisted, in the minds of US military strategists as a theatre, a wide expanse of ocean with a sprinkling of islands and dreamy islanders in grass skirts swaying on white sandy beaches like the coconut palms to the strum of ukuleles.
Simplistic, perhaps, but that is how the islander felt he was being treated.
If the US needed to dump highly toxic nuclear waste or test nuclear weaponry, or even transport nuclear arsenal through the region, it did not feel anybody deserved the courtesy of being informed.
The ANZUS Treaty collapsed as a direct result of this arrogant stance by the US.
But times are a-changing.
US influence in the region, while still very influential, is being challenged both militarily and economically by the rising might of China and India.
What does it all mean for little nations in the South Pacific like Papua New Guinea?
The first thing really is to wake up to the fact that this geopolitical game is being played.
So far it has been behind in these considerations, perhaps because quality and up to date advice at that global and regional level has not been going to government or if it has then it has been ignored.
Either way such ignorance or neglect is very costly as we shall see.
This country does not have a comprehensive national security policy which would take into account regional and global socio-economic-political-security realities and their implications on the nation.
A national security policy would tell Papua New Guinean politicians that the Ramu nickel/cobalt mine does not need to enjoy a 10-year tax holiday and other concessions running into tens of millions of kina that have been given away at tremendous future cost to this nation.
This mine is not merely a financial economic investment. It is also an extension of Chinese geo-political interests in the region. It has the blessing of the Chinese government.
The benefits, while huge to PNG, are negligible to China but, through the company, that country has gained a foothold here.
Likewise, the massive investment by ExxonMobil, the US petroleum giant, in the PNG liquefied natural gas project. It too has received concessions which will in time appear as if our leaders have robbed the cradle, it has given away the wealth of future generations.
The US government has more than a passing interest in this project if the lead role played by the US credit agency in the financing of the project is any indication. It too would have happened and did not need the concessions.
Progressively, the people and governments in the region are coming more and more into focus as both China and the United States compete for strategic influence and control.
The US is moving its Okinawa military base to Guam. The United States has stepped up its commitment to work with its Pacific Island partners with the second visit to the region by the US assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt M. Campbell, and the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Cecil Haney, with an interagency delegation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will, for the first time, attend a South Pacific Forum annual meet in the Cook Islands later this month.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced in Singapore last weekend that by 2020, the greater part of the American naval forces – including six aircraft carrier battle groups as well as a majority of the navy’s cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat ships and submarines – will be stationed in the Asia-Pacific.
Following a visit to PNG, Australia and New Zealand by the Chinese vice-premier last year, Clinton did exactly the same.
China seeks, it appears, nothing less than an historic shift in the Asia-Pacific balance of power.
For a long time it has been contained in the confines of its territorial boundaries but with increasing economic might, the temptation is natural to break the strangle hold the might US Pacific Fleet has enjoyed in this region since World War II.
It will want to break out and protect the sea lanes of South China and South East Asian seas.
Last year alone, almost US$6 trillion in trade was plied along the sea
routes off South Korea, Japan, China and Vietnam, while half of all global trade passed through the Indian Ocean.
A crisis in either body of water would affect the entire world economy.
PNG might not contribute to a crisis were that to occur but it stands to gain by being conscious of what goes on in the wider world rather than be inward looking all the time.