Consideration of some transition to an endemic COVID condition has added another twist to the earlier geopolitical concerns over mask diplomacy. The small size of the Pacific Commonwealth states makes it technically feasible for these states to swing directly from being besieged by COVID as a pandemic to a relatively protected endemic stage. ‘Vaccine diplomacy’ is now on the table for leveraging influence given the advances China has made with its research and development. Immunising the microstates of the Pacific could well be within the resources of China if it develops a safe and effective vaccine before other vaccines become available. Whether vaccine diplomacy is even an option will depend on supply, demand and if there is a chokehold on distribution. Australia has countered by supporting several schemes to guarantee access to vaccines in sufficient amount to ensure availability in the Pacific Islands (Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security). New Zealand is also engaged with these arrangements.
There are some interim measures being considered that could allow the Pacific states to turn their COVID-safe national bubbles into an asset regionally. The Commonwealth Pacific Island countries believe that their COVID status entitles them to be included in a travel bubble with either or, preferably, both Australia and New Zealand. As early as June 2020, Fiji proposed a partial and one-sided travel bubble with Australia to allow visitors and yachts inter alia to spend some time at limited destinations with careful health protocols. Their two developed Commonwealth partners have agreed to create a trans-Tasman bubble when feasible. The benefit of these proposals is to free visitors and workers from the need to undertake expensive quarantine requirements, but they will have to be effective both ways to really open up business and tourist traffic. The demand for seasonal labour during the austral summer and autumn in both Australia and New Zealand has been building pressure domestically in the two countries for the travel bubble while the need for the guest workers income is amplifying the lobbying from the Islands.
The Pacific Island states’ success with containing the health threat has made the damage to their economies stand out more starkly as they look to recovery. Thus, if COVID is to have any geopolitical rebalancing consequences in the South Pacific, it is less likely to be a result of overwhelming Chinese medical largesse than the pandemic’s geo-economic fallout. Estimates of a decline of 5.9% in regional real GDP and an increase in extreme poverty by 40% are compounded by the debt incurred to stave off the worst of the business and social impacts of these losses. The regional response has been led by the PIF Economic Ministers who endorsed a proposal at their 2020 meeting to establish a ‘regional COVID-19 Economic Recovery Taskforce to lead a coordinated response for national and regional economic priorities both in meeting the pandemic setbacks and in the post-COVID recovery phase’.
The Taskforce faces some extremely serious challenges. Despite the G20’s agreement for a ‘debt standstill’ to the end of 2020 for developing states and other measures to manage the Pacific Island states debt repayments, the threat of defaulting on international borrowings hangs like a sword of Damocles over most of the COVID-ravished economies of these states. The evidence that China can pursue strategic ambitions through leveraging COVID to secure a geo-economic transformation of the region, however, is mixed even if the ambition has substance. Some point to the effects of COVID on China’s economy as a likely limiting factor. Moreover, the last two years suggest that the PRC has lost some enthusiasm for buying influence in the region. The small Pacific Commonwealth states like the rest of the region will find their inherent vulnerability fully tested on the path to economic recovery. The engine of global revival will not pull with even and equal effect around the world. The restoration of economic growth is likely to be rather ‘clunky’ as different cars in the global train start up at different times with different levels of power to pull the following cars.
Unfortunately, the small Pacific states can be characterised as the caboose on a global economic freight train. The Islands’ economic revival will depend very much on how quickly and with how much energy their traditional partners and markets restart their economies. Before the tourists return, for example, travellers in the source countries will need the disposable income and confidence to book vacations. Airlines and cruise ships will want to see reinvigorated demand to fully restore their services as will the travel agents, hotels and the myriad other elements of the travel industry. Similar factors will apply to international demand for the region’s exports and the availability of its imports. Their small size may make some temporary economic boosts possible to soften the length of time it will take for global recovery to fully include the Pacific Islands. Nevertheless, sustainable economic activity in the region will depend on sustained international revitalisation.
The Commonwealth has not been overtly an organising influence in meeting the threat of COVID as the pandemic has beset the region, despite the political heritage and complexion of the small island states of the South Pacific that make this a profoundly Commonwealth region. Yet the sinews of the regional system and the strength of bilateral relations derive from deeply held Commonwealth sentiments. Australia and Zealand have taken a leadership role bilaterally, regionally and globally in seeking solutions for the sufferings COVID has inflicted on their fellow Commonwealth states. These small states have accepted a great deal of responsibility themselves for meeting the COVID challenge. They have closed their borders and imposed strict internal measures when necessary notwithstanding the economic consequences. They have also developed and empowered regional solutions through the regional organisations such as the SPC and PIF that serve to give them ownership of the regional response to the pandemic. Their shared Commonwealth values may well be decisive in determining the nature and extent of any remodelling of Pacific relations as a consequence of the damage traceable to COVID. Australia and New Zealand will be leaning on these Commonwealth values to limit any perceived adverse geopolitical changes.
Richard Herr is Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania , Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.