Mapped: the vast network of security deals spanning the Pacific, and what it means

Estimated read time 7 min read

As competition for influence in the Pacific region intensifies, analysis by the Guardian has mapped a vast network of security, policing and defence agreements between the island countries and foreign partners – leading to concerns about militarisation of the region.

The Guardian examined agreements and partnerships covering security, defence and policing with the 10 largest Pacific countries by population. Australia remains the dominant partner in the region – accounting for more than half the deals identified – followed by New Zealand, the US and China.

The data shows more than 60 agreements and initiatives, including several infrastructure and equipment deals, to support defence and policing in Pacific countries. The interactive table below sets out each agreement, and can be searched by country or keyword.

More than half the agreements include a focus on policing, with an emphasis on training of Pacific police forces and donating equipment – a push that comes amid rising transnational crime and threats. China has emerged as a new player in this arena, having developed nearly half a dozen initiatives to support policing in Pacific countries in recent years. Almost all the Pacific countries tracked have deals with multiple partners.

A patrolling police vehicle passes military vehicles on the streets of Suva on December 23, 2022, a day after the government announced a post-election deployment to maintain “law and order”.View image in fullscreen

Experts have raised concerns about the militarisation of the region, citing the 2022 security deal between China and Solomon Islands, and the US defence cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea agreed a year later. Only three Pacific countries – Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga – have their own militaries.

Papua New Guinea, the largest of the Pacific nations with a population of about 10 million, draws security support and maintains ties with various partners including Australia, the US and China.

Donald Yamasombi, a deputy commissioner in the country’s police force, said “international partners are keen and are coming in.” He said police in Papua New Guinea were keen to work alongside foreign forces, particularly to combat rising methamphetamine trafficking and use in the country.

While China doesn’t have any formal policing or security agreements with Papua New Guinea, Yamasombi said he regularly seeks advice from Chinese embassy officials, particularly on how to deal with emerging crimes – such as money laundering, illegal migration and prostitution – that are a growing problem in Papua New Guinea.

“If we were to partner with China, I’d like to see it being targeted at those very crime types,” Yamasombi said. The deputy commissioner said he would welcome further collaboration with Chinese police forces, including participating in training programs.

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Meanwhile, the US has at least eight defence and security agreements in place with Pacific countries. Last year, it signed a pact with Papua New Guinea that gave the US military “unimpeded” access to its bases, and in 2020, the US signed a defence and security agreement with Fiji. The US also retains its dominant military footprint in the northern Pacific through its Compact of Free Association (Cofa) agreements with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, which grant the US full responsibility over each country’s defence and security matters.

A spokesperson for the US state department said the Indo-Pacific region is “a leading priority for US foreign policy” and in order to maintain stability, it is “bolstering … security to deter aggression and to counter provocations and other dangerous and destabilising actions” in the region.

The analysis attempts to capture the most significant deals to reveal the span of security ties with Pacific countries and their main partners. It focuses on relationships with individual partners, including some Pacific-wide and regional agreements. Some support or deals – such as one-off police equipment donations – were not included.

Fears over rising ‘militarisation’

Some experts have expressed concern that the kind of deals developed in recent years will enhance militarisation in the region, and a lack of transparency in certain agreements may erode sovereignty and democracy in the Pacific.

Prof Joanne Wallis, director of the Security in the Pacific Islands research program at the University of Adelaide, said there is “a lot more anxiety” about strategic competition in the region between the US and allies including Australia on one side, and China on the other.

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, professor at the University of Hawaii and former director of its Center for Pacific Islands Studies, said the “nature of the security agreements and the details … is of concern”.

Kabutaulaka said the 2023 Papua New Guinea-US defence cooperation deal, which allows American forces access to the Pacific nation’s defence facilities, will “result in the increasing militarisation of the region.”

Separately, a lack of transparency in the China-Solomon Islands security and policing deals is “an issue of concern, not only for Canberra, or Wellington, or Washington DC, but an issue of concern for citizens as well.”

“Part of the anxiety with the agreement with China is that it’s not transparent. We don’t know what was said, what they are going to do,” said Kabutaulaka.

He is particularly concerned the agreements may lead to Chinese law enforcement making extrajudicial arrests in Pacific countries, as was done in Fiji in 2017. “Our approach to policing, our approach to issues of law and order cannot be the same as China,” Kabutaulaka, who is from Solomon Islands, said.

Yamasombi also cautioned against further increases to military spending in the region, saying the money would be better used to fortify the country’s law enforcement and boost its capacity to prosecute transnational crimes.

“Policing is more needed than military [investment] in the region,” Yamasombi said. “Why should we be fighting a war against another country?”

China’s ‘unwelcome’ presence

Australia has invested heavily in policing across the region and is reportedly preparing to establish a new training centre for Pacific police. The Pacific Policing initiative, still in development and being led by Pacific police chiefs, will include coordination hubs and multinational response capabilities.

Canberra provides policing support to various nations and last month Solomon Islands asked Australia to help grow its police force from 1,500 to 3,000 officers. A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “Australia remains committed to the security objectives of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) membership” – guided by the 2018 Boe Declaration.

In Tonga, Chinese officials have offered to provide police training and personnel to assist with security at the upcoming PIF meeting. Police commissioner Shane McLellan – an Australian appointed to the role by Tonga’s King – said China has donated forensic equipment and vehicles to the police force in recent years, and continues to put “offers on the table of various kinds”.

McLellan said, due to language and cultural barriers, police training from democratic nations such as New Zealand and Australia are more appropriate than those offered by China.

“The style of training, and the delivery of training and the methodology that we need in Tonga is more easily accessible and more directly relevant if it comes from a like nation,” he said, adding however “it doesn’t mean to say that we immediately say no to China.”

Warships from China and Russia sail through the Tsugaru strait during naval exercises in 2021 in the Western part of the Pacific Ocean.View image in fullscreen

A spokesperson from the New Zealand ministry of foreign affairs and trade told the Guardian the increased security presence of China in the Pacific was “unnecessary and unwelcome”.

China’s ministry for foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite these concerns, Kabutaulaka predicted Pacific countries “will continue to sign agreements with places like China, whether it’s in policing, or whether it’s in military cooperation”.

He said this may not only lead to geopolitical instability, but may also lead to domestic fractures between citizens and their Pacific governments.

Wallis, meanwhile, said the Pacific “is not a priority” for China, and that it was unlikely Beijing would invest the money to build a permanent military presence in the region.

“I’m less concerned about a [military] base, I’m more concerned about China, undermining democratic structures by not adhering to transparency,” Wallis said.

“The Solomon Islands security agreement is an example that, ideally, would be public,” she said, while also noting that in the future Chinese police may be deployed in the region in ways “that might not fully observe human rights protections and what we would typically expect of good policing”.


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