• New data shows that defense engagement by China, the U.S., Australia and others has surged since 2018.
  • Strategic competition has been a key driver of the rise of defense diplomacy in the Pacific.
  • There is a lack of data on how recipient countries view defense diplomacy and whether it meets their security needs.

As strategic rivalry between China and the United States has intensified in recent years, the Pacific Island region has become a key arena for this geopolitical competition. Pacific Island countries are receiving more bilateral visits, new diplomatic missions, increased media attention and offers of development and security assistance from a greater number of states outside the region than ever before.

A U.S. combat ship visits the capital of the Solomon Islands as part of a ceremony in marking the 80th anniversary of the Guadalcanal battles, in Honiara, Solomon Islands on Aug. 7, 2022.  (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)
A U.S. combat ship visits the capital of the Solomon Islands as part of a ceremony in marking the 80th anniversary of the Guadalcanal battles, in Honiara, Solomon Islands on Aug. 7, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

Within this contested arena, defense diplomacy has emerged as a central mechanism to build relationships and influence, enable visibility and secure presence, and could ultimately serve as a form of deterrence in the Pacific.

Our research tracks defense diplomacy-related activities across five Pacific countries — Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu — between 2018 and 2023 and tells an important story about the rise, trajectory and nature of defense diplomacy in the Pacific.

Defense diplomacy — also known as defense engagement or defense cooperation — refers to the use of military resources and capabilities to achieve foreign policy objectives through nonviolent means. Paramount to this is building trust and assisting in the development of armed forces that are subject to civilian oversight, leading to a wide array of activities spanning both traditional and non-traditional forms of security, from conventional military exchanges to professional development opportunities to climate change initiatives. Defense diplomacy is therefore more easily defined by what it doesn’t include — offensive military operations.  

Since 2018, strategic competition has been a key driver of the rise of defense diplomacy in the Pacific. However, it is important not to over-simplify things. For example, the rise of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) engagement is a reflection of increasing impacts of the climate crisis. This increased engagement has included bilateral and multilateral training exercises, military medical diplomacy, bilateral defense agreements, defense infrastructure and the provision of materiel aid such as equipment as well as other forms of engagement. In turn, Pacific Island countries have leveraged external interests to meet their own development and security needs and priorities.

‘An Increasingly Crowded and Complex Region’

For Australia and New Zealand, the region’s two principal security providers, defense diplomacy has been a central pillar of their Pacific policies alongside diplomacy and development assistance. Two long-standing examples are New Zealand’s Mutual Assistance Program, which supports capacity building and training to Pacific (and Southeast Asian) security and defense forces and was established in 1973; and Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program, and its predecessor, the Pacific Patrol Boat Program (PPBP), which support maritime security in the Pacific and Timor-Leste and has operated near continuously in the region since the PPBP was created in 1985. Our defense diplomacy tracker shows that the U.S. Coast Guard is now extending its engagement into other parts of the region, including the target countries building on long-standing engagements with the Compact States (Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands).

Other external actors have also historically engaged in defense diplomacy, but it wasn’t until 2018 — when the Pacific Islands Forum formally recognized “the dynamic geopolitical environment leading to an increasingly crowded and complex region” in the Boe Declaration on Regional Security — that defense diplomacy emerged as a key instrument for engagement by a range of external actors competing for presence and influence in the Pacific. Our tracker shows a steady increase from 2018 to 2023 punctuated by a slight decrease between 2019 and 2021 (owing to border closures prompted by COVID-19) followed by a sharp rise from 2022 to 2023.

The rise of defense diplomacy in the Pacific is in part due to the increasing domestic role and influence of defense institutions within partner countries. For example, it is often the case that increased engagement by defense agencies is a very significant part of what is often termed a “whole-of-government” approach to enhanced relationships with Pacific Island countries. This was notable when the Morrison-led Australian government initiated its reboot of the Pacific Step Up, including by the optics of its announcement at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville. This subsequently led to some concerns that the Pacific Step Up was distinctly “khaki” in nature. In the case of the U.S., its Department of Defense is the largest U.S. agency operating in the Pacific although efforts to increase American diplomatic presence in the region is ongoing. More recently, some Pacific commentators have argued that defense diplomacy is problematic as it is an aspect of militarization of the region.

Figure 2: Number of defense diplomacy activities in the Pacific 2018-2023 Source Pacific Defense Diplomacy Tracker Project
Figure 1: Number of defense diplomacy activities in the Pacific 2018-2023 (Source: Pacific Defense Diplomacy Tracker Project)

The intersection between defense diplomacy and HADR is of particular note. In large part, HADR engagements are reactive rather than proactive, notwithstanding there is a lot of planning by partner defense agencies associated with cyclone season. However, HADR responses by partner countries’ defense agencies have a high impact in the immediate and long term. Previous research demonstrated that the military responses to Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji loomed large in people’s memories when it came to their perceptions of their countries’ relationships with Australia. This was mirrored in Solomon Islands in relation to the military components of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) — a multi-country intervention to restore peace further to an extended period of inter-ethnic tension.

Interpreting the Data

While defense diplomacy started rising in 2018, it surged in 2022, with the tempo of activities increasing by approximately 197 percent that year. There are several reasons for this. First, activities delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic began to roll out once international borders re-opened. Second, Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China in April 2022, spurring other Pacific partners’ engagement, notably Australia, New Zealand, France, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.

In Solomon Islands, defense engagement increased by approximately 650 percent, especially engagement with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF). This included the provision of support and assistance by the Australian (ADF) and New Zealand defense forces (NZDF) for the Pacific Games in 2023 and the national elections in 2024. The use of military-police engagement as a facet of defense diplomacy is particularly noticeable in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, which do not have standing militaries. This can be problematic. For example, there were numerous concerns raised about the rearming of the RSPIF by Australia, given the status of Solomon Islands as a post-conflict state.

As shown by the China-Solomon Islands security agreement, external actors who have not traditionally been security partners to Pacific countries are increasingly engaging in defense diplomacy to progress bilateral relationships and project presence in the region. Two other notable examples are China’s deployment of military assets in response to the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption and tsunami in 2022 and Indian Navy ships’ visit to Papua New Guinea in 2023. In China’s case particularly, it reflected the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) expansion of relief missions and other operations outside war. 

The 2022 Tongan disaster reflects a concerning phenomenon: the “geo-politicization” of disaster response. This can lead to overcrowding, external partners jostling for access and risks undermining local priorities and needs as officials and first responders are forced to balance the interests and agendas of external actors. In Tonga’s case, competition for pier-side support, access to tarmacs and flight scheduling, and meant that the equipment donated was not quality-controlled. Former Australian prime minister and current Ambassador to the U.S. Kevin Rudd tweeted that Australia must be first to give Tonga assistance. "Failing that," he said, "China will be there in spades." One country official reportedly said “at least we got there before China did.”

The Tongan disaster response also revealed a nascent but important dynamic: the incorporation of non-state actors into official state-led defense activities. For example, two fishing vessels belonging to China National Fisheries (Group) Corporation based in Fiji were tasked with delivering relief supplies to Tonga after the disaster.

Solomon Islands and Tonga were not the only Pacific Island countries that saw a surge in defense diplomacy. In Papua New Guinea, defense diplomacy activities increased by approximately 300 percent between 2022 and 2023, with the majority of activities falling into the categories of training, defense infrastructure and exercises. In Vanuatu, defense diplomacy increased by approximately 1,950 percent between 2022 and 2023. HADR disaster response activities and military police activities were the two dominant types of defense engagement followed by visit diplomacy, military medical diplomacy and defense infrastructure.

Figure 2: Defense diplomacy by types of activity (2018-2023) Source: Pacific Defense Diplomacy Tracker Project
Figure 2: Defense diplomacy by types of activity (2018-2023) (Source: Pacific Defense Diplomacy Tracker Project)

Our data also reflects the growing importance of military medical diplomacy as soft power. In 2023 China's hospital ship, the PLA Navy vessel Peace Ark (Daishan Dao) visited Solomon Islands; in addition to ADF and NZDF support, the Japanese Self-Defense Force provided medical support during the Pacific Games; as did the USNS Mercy. A survey of comments on social media posts by the respective military medical actors reveals how positively these activities are regarded by the recipient communities.

Our data also shows that even countries without defense forces, such as Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, have been able to leverage heightened external interest in order to pursue their own security priorities, particularly when it comes to securing additional equipment or infrastructure. The extensive refurbishments of the Vanuatu Mobile Force barracks in both Port Vila and Luganville exemplify this.

Finally, however, there is a paucity of data on how recipient countries view defense diplomacy and whether they judge that it meets their security needs. Partner countries have not engaged in systematic program evaluations that actively capture the perspectives and attitudes of the recipient countries. The second phase of this research project seeks to address this, and to measure how effective defense diplomacy is as a lever of statecraft.

At this preliminary stage, we can already see that if this tempo of defense diplomacy by partners persists or increases, policymakers should heed some fundamental principles of engagement to mitigate negative second and third order effects. Perhaps most significantly, given that climate change is the primary security threat that faces the Pacific, policymakers should look at how to ensure that HADR responses are coordinated and/or sequenced to underpin local agency. Moreover, partners should be mindful of the dangers of increasing defense diplomacy leading to overcrowding and challenging the absorptive capacity of Pacific partners. In addition, careful consideration should be given to the provision of firearms and other material to security agencies in post-conflict states or communities in order to not destabilize hard-won peace dividends.   

Anna Powles is an associate professor with the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.

Tess Newton Cain is an associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute where she leads the Pacific Hub.

The authors would like to acknowledge Mr. Teddy Winn for his work on data collection as part of this project.

PHOTO: A U.S. combat ship visits the capital of the Solomon Islands as part of a ceremony in marking the 80th anniversary of the Guadalcanal battles, in Honiara, Solomon Islands on Aug. 7, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).