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Defense & Security
Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS or ANZUS Treaty)

Smooth sailing or choppy waters for Australia, NZ and the US in the Pacific?

by Anna Powles , Joanne Wallis

Last week’s announcement that US President Joe Biden would not travel to Papua New Guinea to meet with Pacific Islands Forum leaders was met with disappointment. Expectations were high: the White House had labelled the visit ‘historic’—it would have been the first time a sitting US president visited a Pacific island country—and claimed it would further reinforce the ‘critical partnership’ between the US and the Pacific islands. The meeting was a follow-up to the first-ever US–Pacific Island Country Summit held in Washington last September. But as far as sequels go, this one was a fizzer. Biden’s planned visit was looking shaky even before news of its cancellation, with controversary following leaks about the proposed US–PNG defence cooperation agreement. But the PIF leaders went ahead with their meeting, and the decision by New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to attend, despite neither Biden nor Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese going, sent a strong signal to the Pacific of New Zealand’s commitment to the region. The Australian government has missed an opportunity to send a clear message that Australia shows up in the Pacific even when its larger alliance partner, the US, doesn’t. This brings us to the challenges facing Australia and New Zealand. In response to geopolitical shifts in the region and more broadly, Australia, New Zealand and the US have individually, and in cooperation with each other, sought to enhance their relationships with Pacific island countries and deepen their involvement in the region. However, as we argue in our new ASPI report, released today, cooperation between the three partners faces several challenges—and raises questions for Australia and New Zealand. Despite the rhetoric—at times tokenistic—from the three partners about respecting Pacific agency, ambitions and activism, genuine change requires the kind of mindset shift that may prove challenging, particularly for the US. For example, the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative reflects outdated modes of thinking about the power dynamics underpinning the three nations’ activities in the Pacific. There are limits to the assumed leadership of Australia, New Zealand and the US, as the Solomon Islands – China security agreement highlighted. China, and others, are here to stay. Pacific island countries have options—and alternatives—to their status quo relationships. As unwelcome as Australia, New Zealand and the US may find China’s presence in the region, they need to plan for how they will work alongside a range of partners in the Pacific. This isn’t about accommodation, necessarily, but nor is it about constraint when Pacific island countries pursue their own interests. It’s becoming harder for the three partners to balance their interests and values while at the same time attempting to reconcile broader strategic interests with Pacific priorities. Australia, New Zealand and the US pride themselves on being liberal democratic nations committed to upholding human rights and the international rules-based order. But respect for those values is being tested by their perceived need to advance their strategic interests. Controversy over the AUKUS partnership raises questions about how closely the partners want to relate to each other in the Pacific islands region. Differences among Australia, New Zealand and the US mean that, in some instances, they may wish to carefully consider risks to their reputations and to their individual relationships with Pacific island countries. This includes New Zealand’s stance on nuclear issues, as well as Australia’s and New Zealand’s abilities, as members of the Pacific Islands Forum, to act as a constraining influence on US ambitions in the Pacific when they cut across collective Pacific interests. The US needs to appreciate that Australia and New Zealand are bound to the Pacific through geography, history, constitutional relationships and, increasingly, identity. The challenges we outline in our report are not insurmountable. But how Australia, New Zealand and the US partner with the Pacific—and with each other—matters deeply. These considerations take conventional responses to strategic competition in the region beyond the binary reaction to China as the destabilising actor, and demand that the three partners reflect on their own contributions to peace and security. We therefore recommend that, when seeking to enhance their engagement in the region and work together, Australia, New Zealand, and the US should ensure that Pacific priorities direct activity, not their own. It’s important for the partners to ensure that their initiatives don’t undermine or supplant existing regional frameworks but instead expand on established mechanisms. And, importantly, Australia, New Zealand and the US must avoid competing with one another and instead cooperate more closely, where appropriate, to pool their collective strengths. Biden’s reason for skipping both the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in PNG and the Quad summit in Sydney are well understood: the US domestic debt crisis took priority. But it has reminded the Pacific island countries—and Australia and New Zealand—that, despite its protestations, the US has yet to prove that it is a reliable and consistent partner to the Pacific. It should also serve as a reminder to Australia, New Zealand and the US that the time and opportunities they have to build trust and demonstrate their reliability to their Pacific partners are not limitless.

Defense & Security
Solomon Islands

Russia and China co-ordinate on disinformation in Solomon Islands elections

by Albert Zhang , Adam Ziogas

한국어로 읽기 Leer en español In Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Читать на русском Moscow and Beijing likely worked together to sow disinformation globally that was propagated locally by political parties in the lead-up to Solomon Islands’ national and provincial elections on 17 April 2024. Both countries’ propaganda systems accused the United States, without evidence, of using its foreign aid and networks across the country to interfere in voting and of preparing to foment riots and orchestrate regime change in response to an unsatisfactory election result. This campaign adds to a growing body of evidence showing that China’s and Russia’s ‘no limits’ partnership extends to coordinating their disinformation campaigns in the Indo-Pacific. The narratives haven’t gained widespread attention or media coverage in Solomon Islands. Australia, the United States and other Pacific partners should nonetheless be concerned, as Russia and China can be expected to learn from this campaign and will likely use the lessons to further improve their influence operations in the region. Individually, China and Russia are adept and expert at pushing disinformation to disrupt other nations but, by coordinating their efforts, they have a force-multiplier effect. The campaign consisted of an alleged ‘leaked’ letter, articles published on authoritarian state-controlled media outlets and a fringe journal publication, which were then shared and amplified on social media platforms. A fortnight before election day, an unknown author by the name of Richard Anderson published an explosive article in CovertAction Magazine alleging that the US was seeking regime change in Solomon Islands. The US-based magazine was co-founded in 1978 by the late Philip Agee, a former CIA officer who after his retirement became a vocal critic of the agency and of US policy and had reported links with Soviet and Cuban intelligence. The magazine was set up ‘on the initiative of the KGB’, the Soviet Union’s main intelligence agency, according to a book by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin and British intelligence historian Christopher Andrew. Anderson had no previous history of writing for CovertAction Magazine. A week after that article was published, Russian state-controlled media agency Sputnik further fuelled the allegations, writing that the US was ‘plotting [an] electoral coup’. This article cited an anonymous source who had ‘intimate familiarity’ with the activities of USAID, the main United States foreign aid and international development agency. This mirrored how Anderson is described in his CovertAction Magazine bio, though Sputnik’s article did not explicitly mention him or his article. Sputnik’s claims were amplified four days later by the Chinese state-controlled tabloid newspaper the Global Times, which did directly reference Anderson’s article and has the potential to legitimise these narratives to an audience the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is actively targeting. During the same period, a poorly fabricated letter from an unconfirmed (and potentially non-existent) IFES project consultant was circulated among Solomon Islanders by an unknown source claiming that the US was seeking a ‘democratic transition by violent means in necessary circumstances.’ The text in this letter mirrored language used by Sputnik’s alleged anonymous source. Figure 1: Paragraph from Sputnik article (top) and a screenshot of the alleged IFES letter (bottom).     To be clear, there is no evidence that the US, or any other country, is supporting violent riots or interfering in Solomon Islands. Ann Marie Yastishock, US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, has strongly refuted these allegations. This is not the first time the CCP-controlled media has spread disinformation in Solomon Islands or accused the US of seeking to instigate riots in the country. Following the 2021 Honiara riots, the CCP falsely accused Australia, the US and Taiwan of organising the riots, fomenting unrest and discrediting the relationship between Solomon Islands and China. In contrast, Russian media outlets also covered the 2021 Honiara riots but didn’t promote any explicit accusations of US or foreign interference. This time, China and Russia have been in lockstep. In the lead-up to the April elections, Russian state media was more direct and damning in its reporting with the release of Sputnik’s original article and in the subsequent coordination and dissemination of false narratives alongside Chinese state media. While Sputnik published only one follow-up article to the initial investigation, China’s Global Times was more prolific and varied, with six articles alleging US meddling in Solomon Islands. Of these six articles, four explicitly referenced Sputnik’s claims and two referenced US influence operations in more general terms. The indications of Russia-China propaganda coordination in this campaign were further supported by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) post on 19 April 2024 titled ‘The Hypocrisy and Facts of the United States Foreign Aid’. The post on their website claims the US is giving aid to Solomon Islands, among other countries, only because it sees it as a political threat. This was the first article ever published by the MFA to smear USAID. Moscow, however, has consistently campaigned against USAID since it ejected the US agency from Russia in 2012 for ‘meddling in politics’. Russian media has pushed a consistent narrative that the organisation is a US imperialist tool of regime change, accusing it of fomenting civil unrest and coup attempts as far afield as Belarus, Cuba, Georgia and Mexico. However, this latest attack against USAID appears to be the first where Russia’s narratives are working to the benefit of CCP interests. It’s been clear since at least 2018 that Russian and Chinese state media are converging on media narratives that serve their governments’ strategic and political interests. According to leaked documents from Russian state broadcaster VGTRK, Russian and Chinese propaganda entities also signed an agreement to ‘further cooperate in the field of information exchange, promoting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of the most important world events’. While previous ASPI research has demonstrated Russian and Chinese state-coordinated narratives on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the repeated re-airing of Sputnik’s conspiratorial claims of interference in Solomon Islands’ elections in Global Times articles indicates this propaganda cooperation is now a global initiative. There was also some evidence of amplification by inauthentic accounts on social media of these narratives, but they were limited and it is unclear whether they were state linked. For example, one X account with the handle @jv79628 shared the original Sputnik investigation. The account posts links almost exclusively from Sputnik, Global Times, Australian website Pearls and Irritations and videos with artificial intelligence-generated voices from the pro-CCP YouTube channel Chinese Revival, which may be linked to the Shadow Play network previously uncovered by ASPI. Other accounts sharing the original Sputnik report, such as @de22580171, pose as pro-Russian US citizens. They share articles mostly from Sputnik or Russia Today. At the time of publication of this report, Russia’s and China’s state media articles, and the accusations contained in them, have had minimal reach into online Pacific communities. In the public Solomon Islands Facebook groups ASPI viewed, online discourse remains more focussed on the emergence of new coalitions and the election of a new Prime Minister than on discussion of foreign influence or interference. According to Meta’s social monitoring tool, CrowdTangle, none of the articles from the Global Times have been shared in open and public Solomon Islands Facebook groups. However, Sputnik’s first article may have been more successful in reinforcing anti-Western sentiments in outgoing Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s O.U.R. Party, who are strong contenders to be part of the coalition that forms the next government. That article was posted on the O.U.R. Party Solomon Islands Facebook page, which is run by the party, on 10 April. It was reshared to several public Facebook groups in Solomon Islands, including news aggregation sites and local island forum pages. This is significant because it is the first time a news article has been posted on the O.U.R. Party Solomon Islands Facebook page, which typically shares positive images of the party’s activities and political campaigns. As of 1 May 2024, the post (below) has had over 180 interactions, which is higher than the average number of interactions a typical post has on this page. Figure 2: Screenshot of Sputnik article posted in O.U.R Party Solomon Islands Facebook page.     Sogavare, a founding member of the O.U.R. Party, has made similar remarks about ‘foreign forces’ previously. According to an article published in the Solomon Star, when US Ambassador Yastishock visited Solomon Islands in late March to present her letter of credentials to Governor-General John Oti, Sogavare claimed foreign forces were ‘intervening in the national general election’ and ‘may fund some political parties and plan to stage another riot during the election to disrupt the electoral process and undermine social stability’. Despite the low online interaction so far, the barrage of US regime change allegations lays the foundation for future narratives that may resurface if Solomon Islands experiences future unrest. Beijing and Moscow can be expected to learn from these disinformation efforts, leaving the US, Australia and their Pacific partners no room for complacency about the threat the regimes pose, nor the need for effective strategic communication. The Russian and Chinese governments are seeking to destabilise the Pacific’s information environment by using disinformation campaigns and influence operations to undermine traditional partnerships. In this digital age, leaders of governments and civil society across the region need to consistently confront and counter baseless lies pushed by authoritarian state media, such as accusations that the governments of Australia and the US are instigating riots. If they fail to do so, partnerships with, and trust in, democratic countries are at risk of deteriorating, which can reduce the development benefits provided to Pacific Island Countries by Western partners. Australia, the US, and other close Pacific partners, such as Japan, New Zealand and the European Union, must take a stronger stance against false and misleading information that is starting to circulate in the region as a result of authoritarian state-backed disinformation campaigns. These nations must also better support and encourage local media and governments to take further steps to identify and combat false information online. This includes providing more training packages and opportunities for dialogue on media-government communication procedures to tackle disinformation and misinformation. Countering the effects of disinformation requires ongoing efforts to call out false statements, educate the public, and build country-wide resilience in the information environment. Greater transparency and public awareness campaigns from the region’s partners can also help to ‘prebunk’—or anticipate and delegitimise—disinformation and alleviate concerns about malign activity.

The red wave is coming to Arizona in 2022. Starting at 6 am on Sunday, thousands of Trump supporters lined their cars outside the event, hoping to be one of the first people inside the Trump Rally.

Australia can’t muddle through Trump 2.0 – we need to plan now

by Richard Maude

한국어로 읽기Leer en españolIn Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربيةLire en françaisЧитать на русском If it comes to pass, a second Donald Trump presidency will once again strain the bonds that have kept Australia and the United States close through so many decades. The self-interested nationalism of “America First” sits in fundamental opposition to the ideas that animate Australian foreign policy. We will have significant policy differences. Trump’s autocratic instincts, laid bare in attempts to steal the 2020 election, make talk of shared values a stretch. A Trump victory is far from assured. Still, the government needs a plan for one, and well before election day. Australia’s instinct will be to “manage through” pragmatically – to pick fights carefully, to be tough in private when needed while disagreeing politely in public, to build support for Australia in the administration, Congress and big business, and to work around Trump wherever possible. This was the model for Trump’s first presidency. There is nothing illegitimate in it, recognising as it does the enduring national interests that Australia has in its relationship with the United States – interests that are too important for governments to ignore, whatever they might think privately of Mr Trump. The alliance, on which Australia has staked so much as China’s power grows, is deeply institutionalised and will outlast Trump 2.0. The government is doing as much as it can to lock down AUKUS arrangements before the election. There is every chance economic ties will escape Trump’s obsession with “unfair” trade – Australia’s economy is open and the US enjoys a healthy trade surplus. Australia will hope that the institutions of the American state will temper excess: the US Constitution limits the ability of any one branch of government – legislative, executive, or judicial – from gaining too much power. Republicans in Congress, for example, won’t challenge Trump publicly, but nor will they give him free rein. And what shapes America happens in its states as much as in Washington. Tempering will happen in other ways. Trump doesn’t usually pay much attention to the interests of close partners, but others in a Trump administration will. The US needs dependable partners – that gives Australia access and at least some influence. Then there’s the noise-to-signal ratio: not everything Trump says will result in action. In short, Australia will be able to get things done, even if it is a wild ride. There is a good argument for protecting the alliance but not for normalising what Trump represents. Still, one doesn’t have to catastrophise about Trump to be alarmed at what might be in prospect. Constrained or not, the radical intent of Trump to remake America and its place in the world is clear. We have been here before, of course, but the stakes are higher, the context different, and the Trump movement better prepared. Today, China’s challenge is sharper and its global dimensions clearer. China’s military modernisation is quickening. The noose is tightening around Taiwan. The bloody, grinding conflict in Ukraine is a daily test of US resolve to stand against totalitarianism in Europe. Democracy and liberalism continue their world-wide retreat. Meanwhile, last year was the hottest on record globally. Unpredictable, inconsistent US leadership won’t support Australian national interests at such a critical moment. The rupture of transatlantic relations; a weaker NATO; the abandonment of Ukraine; emboldened leaders in China and Russia; disengagement from climate change processes; deeper global economic fragmentation; neglect of South-East Asia – if Trump were to win, not all of these outcomes are certain, but all are plausible. “Managing through” a second Trump term will therefore be necessary but not sufficient. For example, the government would need to consider a like-minded “coalitions of resistance” to shape or push back on some US decision-making – that will require loads of diplomatic finesse. Japan and South Korea would be key partners, and Europe more central to Australian thinking than it is today. Australia could choose to deepen the nation’s already evident hedge in Asia against both US inconsistency and Chinese aggression, diverting even more resources and political attention to its major Asian relationships. It may be necessary to spend more on defence and accelerate efforts to develop some sovereign military capabilities. Plurilateral co-operation without the United States, in groups small and large, could become more necessary. We would likely need to do more patching of the international system where our interests are strongly engaged, as the Morrison government did in supporting an interim appeal arbitration arrangement for trade disputes. Australia will need to think hard about how to influence a Trump administration on China. US and Australian approaches to China currently combine deterrence with reassurance through diplomacy. Under Mr Trump, misalignment could occur quickly. Trump has also flagged swingeing new tariffs on Chinese imports and greater self-reliance in “essential goods”. A new trade war and the ever-advancing boundaries of “de-risking” will pose complex policy challenges. Australia’s closest friends in America remind us that US democracy is often untidy and that for all its flaws, America is, well, the only America we have. This is a good argument for protecting the alliance but not for normalising what Trump represents. If Trump wins, that distinction will be as good a guide as any to policy-making in the national interest. This article originally appeared in Australian Financial Review.