The Pacific Is Becoming a Testing Ground for Green Geopolitics

U.S. environmental measures have China as an unspoken target.

By , a Indo-Pacific journalist and analyst who has been covering the region since 1997.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (left) speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on during a joint press conference in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The U.S. flag and the Papua New Guinea flag flank each man in the background.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (left) speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on during a joint press conference in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The U.S. flag and the Papua New Guinea flag flank each man in the background.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (left) speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on during a joint press conference following a meeting of the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on May 22. Andrew Kutan/AFP via Getty Images

The recent security agreements between Papua New Guinea and the United States are a good deal for the planet—but a tough pill for Beijing to swallow, and one that might come with potential blowback.

The recent security agreements between Papua New Guinea and the United States are a good deal for the planet—but a tough pill for Beijing to swallow, and one that might come with potential blowback.

The new agreements accelerate coastal security strategies that also help with climate change adaptation by protecting vulnerable fisheries. These new moves point toward greater opportunities for further climate mitigation and resilience, using existing climate programs in Papua New Guinea and international climate financing. Papuan Prime Minister James Marape has often spoken of his enthusiasm for climate financing, which is also a high priority for the whole of the Blue Pacific Continent 2050 strategy that was endorsed and launched last July 2022 by a coalition of island nations. With the Biden administration set to host a major U.S.-Pacific island summit this fall, American interest in Pacific climate adaptation is growing.

But one aspect of these programs that American officials discuss only behind closed doors is their role in countering Chinese influence in the Pacific. Some of the programs are aimed at curbing environmental damage committed largely by Chinese companies through questionable fishing practices and widespread logging and mining. Pushing Chinese firms with dubious environmental practices out of Papua New Guinea and elsewhere also helps reduce the role of Chinese money, and influence, in Pacific politics—a double win for the United States.

Marape has said Papua New Guinea holds 13 percent of the world’s rainforest, laying out greater goals in the Green Climate Fund roadmap. While a total logging ban still seems a long way away, especially in the absence of more climate financing, the recent deals set the course for greater climate solutions in partnership with the United States and others.

Canberra is also negotiating a security deal with Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby has delayed signing it for more “domestic processes,” but the two have had a binding climate action plan in place since 2018. Australia enacted specific logging guidelines for forestry in Papua New Guinea in 2012 and updated its fishing protection cooperation agreement in 2021.

As the largest importer of both legal and illegal timber, China revised its Forest Law in 2019 to ban the “purchase, process or transport” of illegal logs. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly stated that it opposes illegal fishing, logging, and mining—but there’s little sign of any willingness to restrain Chinese firms operating overseas.

Marape has certainly courted Chinese funders, but American diplomats have felt encouraged by comments such as the following: “The USA remains the leader of the free world. For those of us who believe in democracy, for those of us who believe in a Christian worldview, we share many commonalities with the United States of America.” That comment came even after U.S. President Joe Biden canceled a visit to Papua New Guinea at the last minute, thanks to the debt ceiling crisis.

Amid a raft of agreements, two that stand out are the Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Agreement Concerning Counter Illicit Transnational Maritime Activity Operations. According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, these “will boost cooperation between Papua New Guinea Defense Forces and the U.S. Coast Guard to help build up the Defense Forces’ capacity, and help combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” The second agreement, in particular, will have a major impact on the islands’ threatened fisheries, particularly their tuna stocks.

According to the U.S. State Department, this deal “will enable PNG to participate in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Shiprider program, enhancing PNG’s organic enforcement capabilities, improving overall maritime domain awareness, and helping PNG protect its sovereignty.”

This means the two coast guards can work together to board ships suspected of illegal activities—including potentially directly engaging with China’s aggressive fishing militia that threatens to deplete fishing stocks globally.

These moves are likely to prove popular. Papua New Guinea’s citizens are furious about losing money from illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUU) and want greater security solutions. IUU is also becoming a key climate crisis issue, as it imperils food security at a time when warming waters are killing reefs. Clashes between fishing fleets and locals also make maritime crimes more likely. Chinese firms do little research on or engagement with locals, often prompting an angry response. Marape has already had to step into the uproar over a planned China-backed commercial fishery in the Torres Strait.

Since taking office in 2019, Marape has sought to balance business needs and environmental protection—a difficult feat given the mix of the pandemic and the mutual desire of Beijing, Washington, and Canberra to sway the strategically critical country.

At a press conference after the signing, Marape stressed his desire to avoid picking a side, saying, “What we’ve signed does not encroach—or affect, rather—Papua New Guinea’s own relationships we have with other nations we trade with, or we have relationships with, be it military or government-to-government relations. Period.”

At a time of growing U.S.-China tensions, however, staying out of the conflict is becoming increasingly hard for Pacific nations. In response to the signing, China’s Foreign Ministry played it cool in its messaging, saying, “China is not opposed to countries’ efforts to grow ties with Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island countries,” but the state-affiliated Global Times took a sharp swipe at the United States and the Biden administration.

Regional tensions were stoked in 2017 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, angering Pacific Islanders facing the brunt of rising seas and increased super cyclones. This set a course for Beijing to undermine Pacific nations’ previous recognition of Taipei, as happened in both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019.

In the Solomon Islands, tensions stirred over Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and payments made to his administration from Beijing from many island residents, with protests bubbling over into several days of anti-government violence in the capital city of Honiara in November 2021.

Many Chinese-owned businesses were torched, and Beijing ultimately drafted a secret security agreement with Honiara that was leaked in the Solomons in April 2022, alarming many Pacific countries. A month later, China sought a regional security pact with Pacific nations that failed to materialize. This has galvanized many Western governments to increase outreach and aid—particularly climate change financing and security deals—to Pacific island nations.

As these deals deepen, Beijing’s response is likely to mix promises with threats, as happened this year with then-Micronesian President David Panuelo. Small countries may not want to pick a team—but both Beijing and Washington are increasingly unwilling to let them stay on the sidelines.

 

Christopher Cottrell is a Indo-Pacific journalist and analyst who has been covering the region since 1997. He spent 18 years in China and presently focuses on ASEAN and Blue Pacific Continent development issues, and Indo-Pacific current events.

 

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