Preaching partnership in the Pacific islands

Pacific leaders at the White House, September 2023 (Photo: Supplied)

As the Pacific Islands Forum holds its 52nd meeting in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, leaders are eager for international delegations to focus on Pacific agendas and priorities, exemplified by the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, Forum chair and host of this week’s summit, says “We are not a region of competition, we are a region of collaboration.”

But this week’s focus on the 2050 Strategy, climate change, gender-based violence and nuclear legacies must contend with wider agendas, as major powers jostle for attention and influence.

Beyond the 18 actual members of the Forum, there are another 21 countries serving as Forum Dialogue Partners (FDPs), along with numerous other observers. These Dialogue partners includes major powers like the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Japan and People’s Republic of China, as well countries like Thailand, Italy and Turkey that are not major players in the region. Another half a dozen countries are queuing up to gain FDP status (including Israel, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia) – each with their own global agenda or strategic interests in the region.

Island states represented at the United Nations co-ordinate as the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group, which is part of the wider Asia-Pacific bloc within the UN system. They are also active members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), currently chaired by Samoa. The votes of these networks are valuable in the UN General Assembly and UN agencies (for example, six of the 14 votes against a recent UNGA resolution on humanitarian assistance to Palestinians came from Pacific island states, even as 124 states voted Yes and others – including Australia and Marshall Islands –  abstained).

In recent years, major powers have been eager to woo island leaders, who have added to their frequent flyer points attending a series of summits: the Pacific Island Countries-China Political Leadership Dialogue; the US-Pacific Islands Forum summit in the White House; the BRICS summit; Japan’s Pacific Area Leaders Meeting (PALM); the Indonesia-Pacific Forum for Development; the France-Oceania summit; the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) and this year’s inaugural Korea-Pacific Islands leaders’ summit – the list goes on.

Forum leaders have welcomed this renewed engagement and associated financial support and technical assistance. They have used these summits to argue for the centrality of regional institutions like the Forum, and promoted the priorities set out in the 2050 Strategy.

Despite this, each Forum Dialogue Partner brings its own agenda to the table. Indonesia wants to keep West Papuan nationalists out of regional organisations, while the United States, Japan and Australia are competing with the People’s Republic of China over infrastructure funding. China in turn offers police and military training (worrying news for Pacific civil society and media, given the record of repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang). France presents itself as an ally on climate change and oceans policy, but also wants New Caledonia and French Polynesia removed from the list of non-self-governing territories at the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, where Fiji and Papua New Guinea are members.

In 2021, Pacific leaders adopted new Guidelines and Criteria for Forum Dialogue Partners, and – to save time at their annual summit – agreed to develop a new Partner Dialogue Engagement Mechanism, separate from the already crowded Forum program.

There is, however, a queue of six countries currently requesting FDP status (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Denmark, Ecuador and Portugal). From their recent meeting in Fiji, Forum Foreign Ministers have recommended to this week’s leaders’ summit that all FDP applications be put on hold until the Forum has completed the Review of Regional Architecture (RRA) requested by leaders at previous meetings. The Foreign Ministers Meeting also posed options for consideration (for example, a financial contribution to the new Pacific Resilience Facility should considered as a criterion for any new countries seeking FDP status, as a way of sorting the sheep from the goats).

Relocating the Forum Partner Dialogue outside the formal program this week, Pacific leaders want more focus on regional concerns. Some are also pushing back against the “Indo-Pacific” framing that dominates much academic and media commentary. They seek greater commitment to Pacific priorities and ways of working, and more recognition of islander agency, culture and history (sadly missing from many international commentators, who see China behind every political event in the region).

Despite the repetitive rhetoric from many donors about “sovereignty”, “the Pacific family” and the “rules-based order”, there’s a sharp awareness of the naked self-interest evident in a lot of the renewed engagement with the region.

When French President Macron toured Melanesia in July, for example, he presented France as a Pacific nation and a “balancing force” against the “new imperialism” that threatens islands’ sovereignty. Many people in the francophone Pacific, however, are worried about the old imperialism, and France’s ongoing colonial role as the administering power of non-self-governing territories.

In Tahiti, the Assembly of French Polynesia has just established a parliamentary commission on decolonisation and unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), to the dismay of French authorities. For the first time since they joined the Forum as full members in 2016, New Caledonia and French Polynesia will both be represented in Rarotonga by pro-independence politicians. Newly elected President Moetai Brotherson will join his New Caledonian counterpart Louis Mapou in the leaders’ retreat, seeking closer ties to regional neighbours.

As Macron visited Vanuatu last July, locals questioned whether France’s respect for sovereignty extended to the Melanesian nation’s maritime boundaries, given ongoing French attempts to claim waters around the disputed Matthew and Hunter Islands (Vanuatu is supported by the FLNKS independence movement and the Kanak Customary Senate in New Caledonia, which both signed the Keamu Agreement in 2009 and say the islands belong to Vanuatu).

In September, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) Reverend James Bhagwan highlighted these challenges at a church synod in Tahiti: “The rhetoric, the talk by the militarised and colonial and neo-colonial countries around the Indo-Pacific Strategy, around climate change and even the Blue Pacific is a way of using security to control our region and to gain support from so-called democratic countries to shut down processes of decolonisation, of self-determination”

“The pressure on Pacific Island countries to choose sides in this ‘new cold war’ is beginning to unravel the cords that bind our regional, sub-regional and national political and social structures,” Bhagwan added. “For local communities, the concern is not geopolitics but improvement of their wellbeing  through better healthcare, infrastructure development, education and employment opportunities across their islands and highlands.”

In the face of all this geopolitical jousting, other Pacific politicians and scholars are anxious about the interference of major powers in regional affairs. Even as they preach partnership, the larger nations are using aid, trade and political support to divide Forum unity.

Liberated from the diplomacy required during her two terms as Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor has been outspoken about the way international players are undercutting Pacific regionalism. In a recent policy paper for the Asia Society, Taylor pointedly argues that “our regional unity is deeply challenged and undermined by the encroaching influence of competing geopolitical agendas…Some PIF members prioritise relationships with powerful states such as the US, China, and France, at the expense of broader Pacific affiliations. This hierarchy of allegiances compromises the unity of the Pacific community.”

It will only get worse. In his October 2022 National Security Statement, US President Joe Biden proposed “a latticework of strong, resilient, and mutually reinforcing relationships” through partnerships like AUKUS, the Quad, the Five Eyes intelligence network and the Blue Dot infrastructure program. The US policy statement argues that investing at home and aligning with allies is vital for “out-competing the PRC in the technological, economic, political, military, intelligence, and global governance domain.” At unprecedented White House summits in 2022 and 2023, Biden has personally led the push-back against Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands.

However Dame Meg Taylor has argued that “at the regional level, rather than seeking to surpass China’s improved position by also delivering on our development agenda, the response from the United States and its allies has been to subsume our narrative under their own geostrategic framework of strategic denial.”

Washington’s creation of the Partners for the Blue Pacific in June 2022 (to coordinate aid programs with Australia, New Zealand and Japan), angered. While coordination of aid donors is a useful initiative, the PBP was created without formal consultation with the Forum Secretariat, and regional commentators argued the initiative undercuts Pacific institutions and co-opts the language of the “Blue Pacific”, without the substance!

Speaking in Canberra earlier this year, Prime Minister of Sāmoa Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa diplomatically stressed that “in the Pacific, we feel our partners have fallen short of acknowledging the integrity of Pacific leadership, and the responsibility they carry for every decision made as a collective, and individually, in order to garner support for the sustainable development of our nations.”

Dame Meg Taylor is an active member of Pacific Elders Voice, a network of regional statesmen and women who are vocally challenging northern hemisphere narratives.

A fellow member of the Pacific Elders, former Guam Congressman Robert Underwood, has argued: “Geostrategic competition really poses an important question for all Pacific Islanders and that is: Do you just want to continue to be pawns in a larger game? Do you just want to be pawns in a chess game in which large countries are actually making the decision?”

Leading Solomon Islands scholar Professor Transform Aqorau wants to see regional pledges and declarations translated into action is on the ground, to benefit ordinary members of the community.

“It is easy for analysts and observers from thousands of miles away to distil the region’s dynamics into a neat frame of ‘China vs. West’, but the reality on the ground paints a different picture,” Aqorau writes. “To the locals, who often lack basic support services and facilities, the origins of the aid matter far less than the benefits they bring. When new infrastructure or services emerge, it isn’t about which flag flies overhead, but about the tangible improvements in their day-to-day lives.”

As Forum leaders discuss regional agendas this week, they will be joined by many international dignitaries, from the US Ambassador to the United Nations, to the newly elected Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund and the President of the UN General Assembly.

But as wars rage in Europe and the Middle East, the security agenda is becoming more polarised. The Forum’s Boe Declaration on Regional Security, adopted in 2018, stresses that climate change is “the greatest single threat to the livelihoods, wellbeing and security of Pacific peoples.” There will be lots of preaching about partnership, sovereignty and security this week in Rarotonga, but will major international institutions adjust their political, diplomatic and bureaucratic systems to deal with the reality of life in Small Island Developing States?