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Why Royal diplomacy matters in the South Pacific

Buckingham Palace has made it clear that His Majesty, Charles III, will embark on a significant royal tour of Realms and other Commonwealth nations in the lead up to his Coronation in May. Sources from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have also suggested that the King may be asked by His Majesty’s (HM) Government to visit France and Germany too.

The governments of the larger Realms, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, should rightly expect a visit by their new Sovereign. But Buckingham Palace should prioritise a visit by the King to his smaller Realms and Commonwealth countries, particularly in the South Pacific.

Amongst the 18 states and territories that constitute the Pacific Islands Forum, 13 are members of the Commonwealth. Aside from Australia and New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu are constitutional monarchies that recognise His Majesty, Charles III, as their Head of State and are represented by a Governor-General.

To some in London, a visit by the Sovereign and Head of the Commonwealth might appear neo-colonial and unhelpful at first glance. But this should not be the case, particularly given the recent diplomatic blitz to the South Pacific by Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister. Soon after inking a new security agreement with the Solomon Islands, Wang visited Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste and hosted a meeting of Pacific foreign ministers in Suva. 

The profound respect in which the King’s late parents were held should not be underestimated. Nor should the institution of the Crown. Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and Tuvalu chose, in the relatively recent past, to keep the monarchy as part of their constitutional arrangements upon independence. In fact, in Tuvalu, a republican referendum has been rejected twice since 1978.

Be in no doubt, there is a connection between Chinese influence in smaller states and ongoing calls from their politicians for becoming a republic. Barbados recently removed the Crown without the public being given a vote on the matter. As Tom Tugendhat, Minister of State for Security, quite rightly observed last year:

China has been using infrastructure investment and debt diplomacy as a means of control for a while and it’s coming closer to home for us. British partners have long faced challenges from rivals seeking to undermine our alliance. Today we’re seeing it in the Caribbean. Some islands seem to be close to swapping a symbolic Queen in Windsor for a real and demanding emperor in Beijing.

Like the Carribean, the South Pacific might be a long way from London, but as the 2021 Integrated Review soberly observed: ‘the significant impact of China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond will pose an increasing risk to UK interests.’

Indeed, the People Republic of China’s (PRC) success in signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands earlier this year, as well as Beijing’s success in ensnaring several Pacific Island nations to their Belt and Road Initiative, should be a cause for genuine alarm in the United Kingdom (UK). It is a geostrategic challenge to the interests and security of the UK, and its AUKUS partners – Australia and the United States – as well as New Zealand.

As laid out in the Integrated Review, the UK – and with it the British armed forces – is ‘tilting’ towards the Indo-Pacific. This has been evidenced by multiple developments. 

In September, Royal Air Force Typhoons from six Squadron and a Voyager participated in Exercise Pitch Black hosted by the Royal Australian Airforce in the Northern Territory in conjunction with other air forces from around the world. Furthermore, in the same month, HMS Spey joined the Royal Australian Navy’s international exercise ‘Kakadu’ for the first time, with the armed forces of the US, India, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia – all key Indo-Pacific partners for the UK – among others.

The Crown is a huge magnet for Britain’s cultural diplomacy, particularly with smaller states. With the welcome re-appearance of the UK as a regional power in the Indo-Pacific, King Charles could prove to be a very quiet, but profound, force for good in an increasingly contested theatre. 

Britain’s Indo-Pacific engagement has already been affected by Chinese moves in the South Pacific. In August, HMS Spey, which was taking part in Operation Island Chief (a first for the Royal Navy), was with the US Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Henry when it was unable to enter the Solomon Islands to refuel. Kristin Kam, public affairs officer for the US Coast Guard said in a statement that ‘The government of the Solomon Islands did not respond to the US government’s request for diplomatic clearance for the vessel to refuel and provision in Honiara’. Kam went on to say that ‘The US Department of State is in contact with the government of the Solomon Islands and expect all future clearances will be provided to US ships.’ A Royal Navy spokesman said it ‘looks forward to visiting the Solomon Islands at a later date’.

Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands Prime Minister and therefore one of Charles III’s prime ministers, met with Anthony Albanese, the Australian Prime Minister, in early October. At the meeting in Canberra, Sogavare pledged that no foreign military base would ever be allowed on the Solomons. It is not clear whether future governments will remain bound by his assurances.

The previous Australian Government was accused of not doing enough to prevent the security deal between Beijing and Honiara. However, there are lines that Australian officials will not cross, unlike officials in Beijing who have no qualms in using all the means at their disposal to achieve the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign policy objectives and geostrategic goals.

During his visit to the South Pacific earlier this year, Wang proposed two separate agreements – a ‘Five Year Action Plan on Common Development’ and a ‘Common Development Vision’. These proposals were rejected after David Panuelo, President of the Federated States of Micronesia, raised alarm bells amongst his Pacific island colleagues that the PRC’s motives were not as pure as they claimed. But the PRC is not giving up on wide-ranging security and economic agreements with almost a dozen Pacific Island countries. 

James Marape, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, said in the lead up to Wang’s visit that he would be afforded all the respect and protocols that he deserves as a high ranking official. A visit by the Chinese foreign minister to Port Moresby is one thing, but there is nothing like the prestige of a Royal visit to smaller Commonwealth states and Realms. Although the monarchy stands beyond politics, Royal visits – by the King no less – reconfirm the connections between the Commonwealth family, just as they magnify the structures of constitutional government the monarch stands to protect.

His Majesty, Charles III is Sovereign in 15 separate and independent nation states. His Majesty has made it abundantly clear should the people of those Realms wish to dispense with the Crown, that it is a matter entirely for them to decide upon. But make no mistake, the Crown is a huge magnet for Britain’s cultural diplomacy, particularly with smaller states. With the welcome re-appearance of the UK as a regional power in the Indo-Pacific, King Charles could prove to be a very quiet, but profound, force for good in an increasingly contested theatre. 

Tim Smith was a Member of Parliament for the State of Victoria in Australia from 2014 to 2022.

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