Protecting the South Pacific

The security of South Pacific states is continually challenged by natural phenomenon and increasingly by man-made variables as nations extend their reach into the Southern Hemisphere in pursuit of their national interests. Although multiple nations provide elements of national power to foster security of the South Pacific, this article provides perspectives predicated on Australia serving as the leading nation for the region. Countries, like China, are extending their influence into the South Pacific, affecting the approximately 40 million people that reside in the South Pacific.[1] China, North Korea, and Russia have increasingly used measures short of war to pursue political and security objectives in other regions through the use of non-state actors and other proxies, covert and paramilitary operations, economic coercion, cyber-attacks, misinformation, and media manipulation.[2] The significance of these forms of war provides an opportunity for new frontiers to be exploited using the same methodology in the South Pacific in pursuit of their expansionist aspirations.

Australia and the South Pacific Islands region [3]

Protecting the South Pacific from Chinese expansion, terrorism, and the consequences of devastating environmental factors requires a combined effort among allies if requirements exceed Australia’s response capacity. Intertwining the elements of power, China is positioning itself as the most important trading partner for many of the region’s economies, investing heavily in markets and infrastructure. Additionally, China’s rapid military modernization is improving the capability of its armed forces, which now fields the largest navy and air force in Asia. Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism is increasing in the South Pacific. Links between local extremists and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, paired with the expansion of extremist organizations in the southern Philippines and Indonesia are serving as a model for terrorism expansion.

Beyond contending with state and non-state actors, the South Pacific is home to one of the world’s deadliest natural environments. The Ring of Fire contains volcanoes, cyclones, and earthquakes which have the potential to create humanitarian assistance and disaster relief concerns for displaced populations. Based on the continual likelihood of natural disasters affecting island populations concurrently, Australia and their allies must anticipate, prepare, and poise to support regional crises.

China’s One Belt, One Road Maritime Silk Road [4]

Chinese Expansion

Chinese expansion in the South Pacific coincides with growing regional political instability and an uncertain economic future, which makes island nations vulnerable to economic influence.[5] Chinese expansion nests in the extension of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative. The premise of the One Belt, One Road project is a reversion to Chinese history of the original Silk Road that increases trade to various countries representing 60 percent of the world’s population.[6] A Silk Road expansion allows China to strengthen diplomatic influence throughout the South Pacific, altering the balance of geopolitical pressure from the United States and others. China’s proposal to build a Maritime Silk Road conforms to larger developments in economic globalization by combining Chinese interests with the interests of countries along the route. Regardless of the form of economic support, China is demonstrating interest in the South Pacific, investing up to $2.5 billion in aid and construction to the region per year.[7] This makes China the most significant contributor to South Pacific economics; Australia by comparison—the second largest investor in the region—is contributing $1.17 billion.

By asserting regional leadership in the South Pacific, China seeks a community of interest with mutual political trust, integrated economies, and inter-connectivity based on the intent to create a new regional economic order.[8] Supporting this analysis, Hayward-Jones observed in 2013 that China’s regional trade increased by a factor of seven in the previous decade, and in 2011, exports from the region to China totaled US$1.17 billion.[9] China seeks to promote exchanges and cooperation between countries along the Maritime Silk Road through marine technology, environmental protection, marine forecasting and rescue, and disaster prevention.

Terrorism Concerns

A continual concern throughout the South Pacific, and specifically in Indonesia and the Philippines, is the return of foreign fighters. Since 2002, the region has seen an increase in the number of terrorist attacks and fatalities. In April 2003, allegations formed that Nauruan passports were found with al-Qaeda operatives, which highlights opportunity for access to international transit via South Pacific nations.[10] These incidents raise concerns about poor screening of those legally obtaining passports and damage the reputation of the nations in question. A lack of institutional capacity in some South Pacific nations to properly screen individuals raises serious questions about risk to the region. Concerns over the threat of failed states and their potential to become hosts to terrorist havens served as the intellectual justification for the Australian-led intervention into the Solomon Islands.[11] By 2007, there were also concerns about the rise of Islamic inspired terrorism in the Pacific.[12] Over the last fifteen years, the number of terrorist attacks increased 720% rising from 106 in 2002 to 870 in 2016. In 2002, there were 350 fatalities related to terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region. This figure increased to 744 deaths in 2014, and declined to 469 deaths in 2016.[13]

More recently, the impact of Islamic State fighters returning to the South Pacific drives concerns about what happens the day after ISIS. The day after scenario anticipates the regional impact of ISIS and non-ISIS returnees to the South Pacific who are “...skilled in combat operations, adept in the use of sophisticated military weapons and tactics, and most important of all, experienced in combat, ideologically fortified, and strongly networked.”[14] Moreover, as the ISIS returnees transition to their original homes “...schooled in radical ideology, especially anti-Shia strains, inter-Islam relations could also worsen in Sunni Islam-dominant Southeast Asia.”[15]

The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are evolving into a leaderless jihad, increasing the opportunities for expansion of extremism to the South Pacific. The Islamic State has affiliates or networks in 32 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.[16] The Islamic State’s ability to undertake and inspire attacks throughout the region is facilitated by its successful exploitation of social media outlets and the internet.[17] Built on ideology and facilitated by the potential pool of returning foreign fighters, the group urges sympathizers to conduct attacks in their home countries.[18] Furthermore, they have developed a broad message which appeals to a wide range of people and is easily be embraced by prospective followers.

South Pacific Earthquakes [19]

The Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire is a 40,000 km (25,000 miles) horseshoe-shaped area of volcanic and earthquake activity following the edges of the Pacific Ocean. The area obtains its name from the 452 dormant and active volcanoes in the belt.[20] Inside the Ring of Fire cyclones remain a continual concern. All three natural threats, as sole or combined events, have the potential to necessitate humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and non-combatant evacuation operations requiring a coordinated governmental response by Australia and her allies.

Approximately 90% of the planet’s earthquakes occur on the edges of the Pacific plate. In 2017 alone, there were 865 earthquakes in the South Pacific.[21] Humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or non-combatant evacuations are not solely the responsibility of Australia. Yet Australia—as the dominant regional actor—provides regional protection and support based on their national interests and with the cooperation of their allies and other impacted nations.

In the South Pacific, there are approximately 135 volcanoes.[22] The location of the volcanoes on the edges of the Pacific plate follows a typical pattern: 5-10 volcanoes assemble in a straight line of a few thousand kilometers length. Then, the next group of 5-10 volcanoes is at a slight angle or displaced from the first cluster. When the volcanoes erupt, the eruptive material rushes to the surface causing a pyroclastic flow, a superheated avalanche (~700 °C) reaching speeds of up to 160 km/h (100mph). On average, there are 40 volcanic eruptions per year which introduce slag, pumice, ash, boulders, and lava to the operational environment.

South Pacific Volcanoes [23]

Beyond volcanoes changing the ocean floor and navigation routes for commerce, a volcanic eruption can significantly impact the affected nation and region. For example, on 27 September 2017, activity at the Monaro volcano on Ambae Island, Vanuatu, forced the evacuation of 10,000 people.[24] Due to the lack of available airstrips and merchant vessels, the non-combatant evacuation swiftly became a regional effort to safely extract the island’s population. Meanwhile, on the western portion of the South Pacific, seismic activity commenced in vicinity of Mount Agung in Bali, Indonesia, forcing the evacuation of 122,500 people.[25] With multiple volcanoes erupting in the region, flights, tourism, and economic trade was significantly impacted. Australia’s ability to support and coordinate a regional response to two concurrent events overextends Australian Defence Force capacity. Due to the seismic activity of Mount Agung, the Indonesian tourism minister projected Bali could lose an estimated $500 million in visitor-revenue by the end of December 2017, which significantly impacts Bali’s economy, over 60% of which is directly related to tourism.[26]

South Pacific Cyclone Tracks [27]

The South Pacific tropical cyclone season extends between 1 November and 30 April. The average numbers of tropical cyclones during the season is eleven, with four typically making landfall.[28] Figure 5 portrays the cyclone belts over a twenty-five year period with the greatest intensity over New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fijian island chains. Two recent events in the region which required Australian support were Cyclones Pam (Vanuatu) and Winston (Fiji). On March 13, 2015, the most powerful cyclone to strike the South Pacific hit Vanuatu and left 75,000 people homeless and resulted in $590 million in damages—a sum equal to more than half of Vanuatu's GDP.[29] The following year, the largest cyclone to strike the Southern Hemisphere, Cyclone Winston, made landfall on Fiji on February 7, 2016 affecting 350,000 people and causing $2.5 billion in damages. More recently, on 13 February 2018, Cyclone Gita struck Tonga, destroying approximately 40% of the homes among the population of 107,000.[30] For all events, the Australian government supported regional response efforts from a whole of government approach by deploying multiple ships and aviation assets with interagency support to deliver humanitarian aid.


Protecting the South Pacific from China’s expansion, escalating terrorism, and the Ring of Fire requires regional response efforts from coalition/combined partners in the event neither Australia nor the affected nation have sufficient response capacity. With China attempting to assert regional leadership as part of their Maritime Silk Road, a checks and balances approach to monitoring and supporting island nations against a regional hegemon may be required. Meanwhile, as the presence of extremist organisations in Syria and Iraq dissipate, and Indonesia and the Philippines continue to contest extremism, opportunities exist for terrorist organizations to expand their foothold in the South Pacific. Aside from China extending its influence to the region and the threat of terrorist events, the impact of geography to the region provides the most significant opportunity for regional partnerships. Due to the increased likelihood of natural disasters affecting island populations concurrently, regional response efforts must anticipate, prepare, and posture to support and augment Australia’s capacity. As such, the reinforcement of strategic partnerships enforcing the freedom of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes by international law sets the foundation for success in the South Pacific.

Troy E. Mitchell is an officer in the United States Marine Corps and a Featured Contributor for The Strategy Bridge. He currently serves as an exchange officer to the Australian Defence Force. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Tahaa Island in the South Pacific (Places You'll See)


[1] World Population Prospects 2017. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. Retrieved from

[2] Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade. (2017). 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Retrieved from

[3] Hegarty, M. (March 2015). China’s Growing Influence in the South-West Pacific: Australian policies that could respond to China’s intentions and objectives. Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, p. 6. Retrieved from's%20Growing%20Influence%20in%20SWP%20(final%20PDF%20amended).pdf

[4] China Investment Research. (15 June 2015). Chinese overseas lending dominated by One Belt One Road strategy. Retrieved from

[5] Hegarty, M. (March 2015). p. 5.

[6] Gramer, R. (4 January 2017). All Aboard China’s “New Silk Road’ Express. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from:

[7] Murphy, T. (22 May 2017). Why China is splashing cash around the Pacific. Newsroom. Retrieved from

[8] Cigui, L. (15 September 2014). Reflections on maritime Partnership: Building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. China Institute of International Studies. Retrieved from “习近平在周边外交工作座谈会上发表重要讲话 [Xi Jinping’s Important Speech at the Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference]”, Xinhua News Agency, 25 October 2013,

[9] Hegarty, M. (March 2015). p. 8.

[10] Van Fossen, A. (21 December 2017). Passports of convenience from the Pacific Islands. The Interpreter. Retrieved from

[11] Shibuya, E. Y. (n.d.). Still Missing in the Rebalance? The United States and the Pacific Island Countries. Regionalism, Security & Cooperation in Oceania. pp. 57-66. Retrieved from

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Singh, B. (17 July 2017). Southeast Asia Braces for the Post-Islamic State Era. The Diplomat. Retrieved from

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 73.

[17] Brooking, E.T. & Singer, P.W. (November 2016). War Goes Viral: How social media is being weaponized across the world. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

[18] Ibid, p. 58.

[19] Nace, T. (31 July 2017). Watch the Earth Crack: animated Map Shows Every Earthquake for 15 Years. Forbes. Retrieved from https:

[20] The Ring of Fire includes 75% of the world's active volcanoes and is also responsible for 90% of the world's earthquakes. Rosenberg, M. (03 October 2017). Ring of Fire. Retrieved from

[21] Earthquake Track. Recent Earthquakes Near South Pacific Ocean. Retrieved on 18 January from

[22] Morris, H. (27 November 2017). Mapped: The countries with the most volcanoes—where does Indonesia rank? The Telegraph. Retrieved from Volcanoes of Pacific Ocean. Retrieved from

[23] Encyclopedia Britannica. Ring of Fire. Retrieved from

[24] Mercer, P. (30 September 2017). Thousands Flee Rumbling Volcano in Vanuatu, South Pacific. Voice of America. Retrieved from

[25] Associated Press. (28 September 2017). Indonesian official: More than 120,000 flee Bali volcano. Fox News. Retrieved from

[26] Oliphant, V. (02 Dec 2017). Bali volcano: How erupting Mount Agung could END Indonesian tourism industry. Express. Retrieved from

[27] South Pacific cyclone tracks 1980-2005. Retrieved from

[28] Bureau of Meteorology. (09 October 2017). South Pacific Tropical Cyclone Outlook for 2017 to 2018. Australian Government. Retrieved from

[29] Connors, A. (15 March 2016). Pam: Vanuatu one year on. ABC News. Retrieved from

[30] Dolce, C., Breslin, S., & Carr, A. (13 February 2018). Tropical Cyclone Gita Hammers Tonga: Injuries Reported, Homes Destroyed. The Weather Channel. Retrieved from