JayAmes Cleverly’s Pacific visit to some of the islands, the first by a British foreign minister since the 1970s, is as welcome as it is overdue. Australia and the US have already made significant renewed commitments to the Pacific after China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April last year, but the UK’s Indo-Pacific “tilt” has been pushed to the South Pacific. It’s been a few years since I arrived.
China has been increasing its presence in the Pacific for decades through investments in infrastructure and development projects. But it is its growing security ties with Pacific nations that have raised concerns among traditional partners and some regional leaders about the possible consequences of Beijing’s growing influence. The visit tactfully signals Britain’s intention to contribute to the regional balance of power.
Given Britain’s declining diplomatic presence in the Pacific in recent decades, the gesture is perhaps to the benefit of Australia and the US as much as it is a demonstration to Pacific nations of Britain’s commitment to the region.
The UK’s renewed engagement is part of the country’s wider foreign policy strategy post-Brexit in its pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The UK is forging new partnerships and deepening existing ties with countries around the world as it seeks to define its place in a contested rules-based international order following its departure from the European Union.
Chatterjee visited Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, key Pacific countries in regional geopolitical competition with China for influence. The visit coincided with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s own visit to New Caledonia and Tuvalu. Cleverly was also scheduled to visit Samoa for a joint event with New Zealand Foreign Minister Nania Mahuta, but this leg of the visit was postponed in favor of co-ordinating the UK’s response to the crisis as a result of escalating violence in Sudan. was abandoned.
The announcements made during the visit, though modest, were commendable. The UK pledged £4.5m in new funding to connect PNG and communities across the Pacific to clean energy sources. The UK also offered its expertise in tackling climate change, protecting the region’s oceans, promoting public health and supporting open societies and a free media.
The focus on climate change and the oceans reflects the UK’s ambition to demonstrate global leadership on these issues and aligns well with its priorities for Pacific countries.
Media freedom is under threat in Pacific countries. Anti-defamation laws have been weaponized to silence Pacific journalists and media outlets critical of their governments or powerful individuals. Journalists in the Pacific have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and violence, creating a climate of fear and self-censorship. The Pacific media landscape is replete with CCP propaganda spreading skewed narratives of local, regional and international developments. Increased UK support for the Pacific Media Region will contribute to strengthening democratic values and institutions.
While in PNG, tactfully signed a status quo agreement with his counterpart, Justin Tkachenko. Strengthening UK-PNG defense ties is a useful outcome of the country visit, particularly in light of the expected regional implications of the AUS Agreement in the coming years.
But Pacific countries, and PNG in particular, have become quite used to receiving high-level visitors bearing gifts from afar, and it was notable that Tkachenko said his country values its ties with China. .
In the Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Sogavare tactfully stated that his country strongly supported the Treaty of Rarotonga, which sets out the nuclear-free zone of the Pacific, and called for it to be respected. It was a small bust of nuclear-powered submarines, the centerpiece of the Aukas, potentially being deployed in the Pacific in the future.
Staying there tactfully is important in the context of the China-Solomon Islands security agreement signed in 2022. The agreement provides for enhancing the Chinese security presence in the Solomon Islands, including protecting Chinese investments. This has raised concerns among Australia, the US and New Zealand about its implications for the regional security order. All three countries sent high-level delegations to the Solomon Islands last year to discuss possible outcomes of the deal, but Britain had not done so before this visit.
Cleverly’s visit, as preceded by US or Australian visits to the Pacific, will not buy traditional security partners any semblance of strategic exclusivity in the Pacific. Nor was it explicitly asked for. Yet the visit and the UK’s renewed commitment to the Pacific “for the long haul” are intended to provide a democratic counterweight to China’s growing influence in the region. And it is most welcome.