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Scramble for Oceania - Soviet Union

During the later part of the 19th Century, the "Scramble for Africa" engaged the Great Powers of Europe to accumulate territories in Africa, which looked good on a color-coded map [pink for Britain, etc], but which for the most part proved to be more trouble than they were worth. There was also a less noticed "Scramble for Oceania", in which Germany and Japan, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union, vied against the Anglo-American hegemony in the Pacific.

Oceania had never been an area of primary strategic interest for the Soviet Union and as of the 1980s appeared ullikely to become so in the foreseeable future. Most Soviet strategic interest in the Pacific had been focused on areas to the north and east of Oceania, and the closest Soviet bases to the area were located some 3,000 kilometers west of the Palaus in Vietnam and over 5,000 kilometers northwest of the Northern Marianas in Vladivostok. There have been occasional and, it appears, isolated sightings of Soviet submarines in various parts of the region, but Oceania remained essentially outside the normal deployment area of the Soviet navy and other military forces.

The Soviet Union was, however, a global power, and as such no area of the world is completely void of strategic significance to it. It was generally assumed that the Soviet Union had subsidiary strategic interests in Oceania that related to the sea-lanes of communication running through it and to the United States military presence in Guam and Hawaii.

The defeat of Japan left six allied nations Australia, Britain, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States in uncontested control of almost all of Oceania. In the easternmost extension of Oceania, Chile also had the small province of Easter Island. Former Japanese-mandated islands in Micronesia had come under the administration of the United States, which was acting under a United Nations strategic trust agreement after 1947.

Each of the six allied Western nations had significant strategic interests in the area, centering mainly on protecting their own territories and maintaining open lines of communications to and through Oceania. These interests, however, were easily secured in the peaceful postwar Pacific setting without resort to military force. Accordingly, almost all military facilities built during the war were rapidly decommissioned or abandoned, and, as the focus of geostrategic rivalry shifted to more volatile parts of the globe, military interest in the islands of Oceania waned.

Two developments in the 1950s helped ensure that Oceania commanded only the most limited attention from strategic and military planners. Primary of these was the 1951 Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America (ANZUS), under which each signatory agreed to take necessary measures consistent with its own constitutional processes should the peace and security of any of the three be endangered by an attack on its territory or forces in the Pacific.

The treaty, which was seen by many to turn the Pacific Ocean into an "ANZUS lake," alleviated the concern of the two southern ANZUS partners over nearby islands and ocean areas; the focus of their strategic defense was then identified as lying far forward on the Southeast Asian mainland. In practice, the treaty also allowed the United States to focus attention on its territories lying to the north of the equator, trusting everything south of the equator except for American Samoa to its two ANZUS allies and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, France and the Netherlands.

Even in the northern Pacific, however, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TFPI) and Guam were situated well behind the lines of United States strategic defense, which under the containment policy lay on the Southeast Asian mainland, in Japan, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and Taiwan. Technological advances in long-range aircraft and ballistics missiles also helped perpetuate Oceania's low profile in geostrategic affairs. Most of the World War II airfields, even if lengthened as far as topography permitted, were unable to accommodate the new and larger aircraft. Moreover, the extended range of planes and missiles greatly reduced the need for air communications way stations or for mid-range bases to support military operations in Asia.

By the mid-1970s developments both within Oceania and outside it had helped transform the regional setting in very fundamental ways. To the south of the equator some of the most important changes were associated with decolonization; to the north they were augured by ongoing negotiations between the United States and the fl'PI over modifying the trusteeship arrangement and accommodating greater internal self-rule. Both these developments had the potential to undermine security conditions in Oceania that Western nations previously could take for grantednamely, their ability to ensure strategic denial by preventing any hostile force from gaining access to resources or facilities having a military utility.

The security situation had also been affected, at least indirectly, by several extraregional developments, including the winding down of the British presence "east of the Suez"; the enunciation in 1969 of the Guam Doctrine, in which the United States called upon its allies to contribute more to their own self-defense; and the general retrenchment of the United States military presence in Asia.

Tonga's establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in April 1976 and reports that the Soviets had offered Tonga aid in exchange for the rights to build an international airport and set up a permanent fishing base spurred strategic planners to take a new look at the security ramifications of decolonization in the South Pacific. Reports that Western Samoa had received similar overtures soon followed. China's establishment of diplomatic missions in Fiji and Western Samoa in 1976 also helped raise the profile of security issues in the South Pacific, but it was generally agreed that the Chinese would be hard-pressed to project a military presence so far from their shores; thus, their initiatives did not provoke the same degree of alarm as did those of the Soviet Union.

In retrospect, the Tonga incident proved significant mainly as a catalyst that sparked an overdue reappraisal of security in the South Pacific. As it turned out, the Soviet Union was not permitted to open a mission in Tonga. In fact, as of mid-1984 the only Soviet resident mission in Oceania was located in New Zealand; representatives to other states in the South Pacific were accredited through New Zealand and Australia.

The purported Soviet initiatives in the region caused the greatest alarm in Australia and New Zealand. At ANZUS meetings in 1976 and 1977 the two nations undertook to persuade the United States to accept their contention that Soviet activity in the South Pacffic was sufficiently threatening to ANZUS interests to warrant more attention to security matters. Neither Britain nor France reemphasized security in their dealings in the area.

British responsibilities were being reduced to a minimum by decolonization. Although France still had important territorial, economic, and strategic interests in Oceania, the French showed no signs of considering these to have come under any threat.

There was speculation that the Soviets might be interested in Oceania as a place where strategic submarines could be deployed to escape detection. This was subject to debate, however, it being difficult to determine whether such action would be necessary or efficacious given the highly classified ratings assigned to state-of-the-art submarine technology. It has also been suggested, again not without dispute, that over the long term the Soviet Union might be interested in developing mid-range bases in Oceania to support operations in Antarctica.

The Soviet Union had very limited political and economic interests in Oceania, and there was little indication that these could grow sufficiently over the short or medium term to assume strategic significance. Soviet diplomatic influence among island states was very shallow; relations with Tonga and Western Samoa were conducted through resident missions in New Zealand and relations with Fiji and Papua New Guinea through resident missions in Australia. Vanuatu, which did not maintain relations with the Soviet Union, established diplomatic relations with Cuba in July 1983, but this had not appeared to have resulted in any increase in local Soviet influence.

There were several reasons for the Soviets' lack of political influence in the area. The island states were basically pro- Western, and Marxist-oriented movements had little support. What diplomatic contacts the Soviets have had with the island states have at times been conducted in a style that provoked resentment among senior officials and diplomats in Oceania. Decisionmaking, both within and among island states, has been characterized by slow consensus building and courteous and careful attention to each party's viewpoint. The Soviets were seen as heavy-handed and unwilling or unable to conform to this "Pacific Way" of doing business. At the same time, the Chinese and the ANZUS nations have been adept at making a case for their own anti-Soviet outlook.

Soviet economic interests in Oceania were limited to fishing, merchant shipping, and cruise line operations. Only the first of these appeared capable of much expansion. Even there, however, most Soviet fishing in Oceania was done in the cold waters off New Zealand. The Soviets gave no military or economic aid to Oceania. Even including trade with Australia, trade with the region has at most accounted for under 2 percent of total Soviet foreign trade.

Notwithstanding the fact that it had few developed interests in the area, the Soviet Union's demonstrated willingness to attempt low-risk advances in other parts of the globe kept the ANZUS nations and several island states alert to the possibility of a Soviet probe in the area. Analysis of Soviet actions and intentions was open to subjective assessment, but there was little doubt that the buildup of Soviet military forces in the Pacific, which had been under way since the mid-1970s, has greatly enhanced the Soviet capability to operate in Oceania.

A major factor in the buildup was the explosive growth of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. Under Soviet military doctrine the navy functioned not only as a defensive instrument in wartime but also as an agent of peacetime state policy. In the latter role it was to be used to pursue international objectives and project political influence. Access to port facilities and airfields in Vietnam, although still far distant from Oceania, has enhanced the Soviet capacity to project a presence in the area.

During the early 1980s there was a noticeable increase in the local operation of Soviet hydrographic research vessels, increasing numbers of which have been alleged to carry naval rather than civilian personnel. The research effort, sometimes conducted by aging submarines or disguised fishing vessels, formed part of a worldwide Soviet drive to advance knowledge of maritime conditions in general. The Soviets are recognized experts in the field. Because such knowledge had a clear military utility, however, especially regarding submarine operations, the ANZUS and island governments have tended to take a dim view of Soviet reseach in Oceania.

Soviet diplomatic behavior has contributed to their cool reception. In late 1980 the Soviet research vessel Kalisto offered its services to a committee associated with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) at a meeting on Tarawa in Kiribati. The proposal that Kalisto would carry out a survey of the EEZs of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu on behalf of ESCAP was initially greeted favorably by the scientists and development officers attending the meeting. The three nations in question, however, were convinced by the ANZUS nations that security complications favored acceptance of a counteroffer under which a United States vessel would undertake the research. That decision was then endorsed by the South Pacific Forum in 1981.

The Kalisto nonetheless began operations, to the displeasure of local states. Representatives of these states were also displeased by the efforts of the Soviet delegate to an ESCAP meeting in 1983 to have inserted into the ESCAP minutes a note saying that the Soviet government had offered data to ESCAP collected by the Kalisto in South Pacific island areas. Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands protested the move, inserting in the minutes an additional note saying that the Soviet Union had "persisted in pressing its offer of marine research on [the ESCAP committee] members though these offers were clearly unwelcome."

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