Ukraine, Russia and China behind Antony Blinken’s flying visit to South Pacific

International analyst Geoffrey Miller explains the significance of Antony Blinken’s whistle-stop tour of the region

With the Ukraine-Russia crisis escalating by the day, it might seem a little odd that the US Secretary of State spent his weekend flying around the Pacific.

New Zealand was left off an itinerary that included Australia and Fiji, but only because of the current Covid-19 border restrictions.

Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta received a phone call from Antony Blinken on Saturday instead. The State Department later said the pair discussed the “collective challenges of the Indo-Pacific” and “their shared commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Mahuta later echoed the emphasis on Ukraine in a tweet, in which she added “NZ joins the call for de-escalation.” In a separate statement on Saturday, she also urged New Zealanders to leave Ukraine, shortly after the US told its own citizens to “depart immediately.”

Given the increasingly dire nature of warnings by the US about the Ukraine-Russia situation, why did Blinken decide to make the long-haul trip to the Pacific now?

Blinken’s main motivation for travel was to attend a meeting in Melbourne on Friday with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan.

The four countries collectively make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or ‘Quad’ for short), a rather hawkish grouping that normally focuses its attention on countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, the pivot to the Indo-Pacific and the focus on China is the centrepiece of the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

Wellington’s outsized role in the South Pacific – as shown by its leadership on the response to January’s volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga – is an important part of the strategy.

New Zealand’s relief mission to Tonga has also been a practical example of the new doctrine of ‘Pacific Resilience’ that Nanaia Mahuta first explained in a landmark speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) in November.

Antony Blinken announced over the weekend that the US would open an embassy in Solomon Islands, but Tonga remains one of only a handful of countries worldwide in which the US has no diplomatic mission.

Beijing has an embassy in Nuku’alofa, however, and China gained a particularly stronghold foothold in the country after Tonga ran up a $US100m debt for rebuilding the capital after riots in 2006.

The desire to avoid a repeat of this situation partly explains why Australia, France, Japan, UK and US all rushed to provide Tonga with aid following the natural disaster in January.

Writing especially in reference to Australia, an article in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper called the strategic element of the aid effort “geopolitical games” and said it amounted to “playing the China card” that trivialised Tonga’s plight.

Against this backdrop, pressing on with the trip to the Pacific – despite the gravity of the Ukraine situation – was one way for Blinken to show just how seriously the US now takes the region and that it would not take a backseat to Europe’s problems.

Or as a White House official put it, “we are very confident of our ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

To underline this, the US released a new ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ while Blinken was en route from Australia to Fiji. The strategy is perhaps the most explicit warning yet from the US when it comes to China’s rise.

While references to China have previously often been oblique, the new 19-page document identifies the People’s Republic of China (PRC) no fewer than 14 times by name.

Using unusually blunt language, the strategy claims “the PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific” and “the PRC is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.”

But there is more to the story than Blinken not wanting to cancel a long-scheduled trip to the region.

From the US perspective, Ukraine, Russia and China are increasingly being interpreted as part of the same geopolitical jigsaw puzzle.

Blinken told journalists in Australia on Friday that Ukraine mattered not just for its own sake, but also because of “very basic principles” such as “territorial integrity and sovereignty independence…If we allow those principles to be challenged with impunity, even if it’s half a world away in Europe, that will have an impact here as well.”

In other words, China is watching what Russia does (or is allowed to do) in Europe.

If Russia is allowed to invade Ukraine, then – according to the theory – China will be emboldened and will be more likely to invade Taiwan.

Blinken’s comments followed remarks by British foreign secretary Liz Truss in Australia in January, who said “I don’t think we can rule that out…aggressors are working in concert” when asked about the potential for China to launch a war in the Indo-Pacific if Russia undertakes similar action in Europe.

Advocates of the “two-front” theory feel bolstered by the bonhomie shown between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the Winter Olympics in Beijing – with Putin calling Xi “my dear friend.”

The pair issued a 5,000 word joint statement in which Xi backed Putin’s opposition to further expansion of Nato and Putin reiterated that Russia saw Taiwan as an integral part of China.

The problem with the two-front theory – which effectively describes a potential World War Three – is that it oversimplifies matters in the quest to create a single, frightening geopolitical narrative.

Reuters reported on Saturday that Taiwan had detected “no unusual manoeuvres” from China as the Ukraine-Russia crisis has been escalating. The report added that Taiwan’s presidential office saw the situations as “fundamentally different” and that people should not believe “fake information” that conflated what was happening in Europe with Taiwan’s own situation.

In other words, Taiwan is not Ukraine.

A more plausible explanation for the two-front theory is that it is being used to try and convince those in the West who do not see why what Russia does or does not do in the Donbass matters.

This is particularly important in the US, where a wide range of voices have argued that the US should stay out of the Ukraine conflict altogether, in part because they believe it constitutes a distraction from competition with China.

Still, it is undeniable that Moscow is forging ever-closer ties with Beijing.

And if Russia does invade Ukraine, these ties are only likely to strengthen further. Given the lack of willingness to send ground troops to Ukraine, the West’s main response – aside from sending military aid to Kyiv – is likely to be a swift and severe package of sanctions, especially on Russia’s oil and gas exports.

Europe is currently heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies, but will probably have to do without them in the event of an invasion. Under US pressure, Germany has even effectively agreed to kill off Nord Stream 2 – a just-completed and highly-prized pipeline which takes a direct route from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea – should an invasion take place.

If tough sanctions are imposed against Moscow, then Russia will probably have to rely on selling its oil and gas to China instead. On the 3D geopolitical chess board, this also makes sense from a Chinese perspective, as China’s current reliance on Middle East imports – mainly from US allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia – represents a significant strategic vulnerability. The US recently designated Qatar as a “major non-Nato ally” – the same status that Australia holds.

All of this adds up to a new Cold War – and an increasingly united Russia and China.

For New Zealand, which for trade reasons has tried to fly under the radar and stay on good terms with everyone, this is not good news.

Increasingly, it looks like New Zealand will be forced to pick a side.

The West – or the rest.

Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s international analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian.

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

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