Opinion: ‘Strategic Manipulation’

SG Puna delivers the keynote address at the Pacific Transnational Leadership forum, held recently in Auckland (Photo: Pacific Islands Forum)

Was it a faux pas?

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Henry Puna has referred to the United States’ return to the region after 10 years of neglect with “the proliferation of regional strategies and consortiums, that serve to shape and influence engagement with, and in our region – tantamount to ‘strategic manipulation.’”

ABC’s Foreign Affairs reporter, Stephen Dziedzic, tweeted that this was “pretty frank stuff from Paciifc Islands Forum (PIF) SG.” However such frankness may have been borne out of periods of frustration, from having to deal with a new and increased array of potential development partners with their respective development policies. Such an outpouring may also be indicative of an approaching crossroad where Pacific Island Countries (PICs) may justifiably opt for new geostrategic alignments given the multipolar world that now prevails.

Secretary General (SG) Puna delivered the keynote address to the meeting of the Pacific Transnational Leadership, Pasifika Fale (PTL-PF), held recently in Auckland. PTL-PF is a think tank that focuses on the governance of the Asia Pacific region. This time around, the think tank was meeting outside of Washington, DC, where it is based.

It can be envisaged that such hosting by a Pacific Island Forum (PIF) country member that is also a Forum founding member (and, whose future trajectory is firmly directed by its 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent) may have been what tipped the scale for SG Puna to make that statement.

Puna’s reference to “the proliferation of regional strategies and consortiums” points clearly to the creation of the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States’ (IPSUS), dated February 2022. The idea of ‘Indo-Pacific’, however, was an earlier conceptualisation. US President Joe Biden had referred to it on 24 September 2021 at the QUAD Leaders’ Summit. He said then: “The future of each of our nations – and indeed the world – depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead.” Prior to that, in 2018, the QUAD members, including Japan, had already referred to Indo-Pacific as a concept. Japan had used the opportunity of the Pacific Leaders Meeting (PALM) then merely to inform the Pacific Leaders of the existence of the idea. There was no consultation whatsoever.

This is unfortunate since both Japan and the US are PIF Dialogue Partners and some form of consultation with Forum Leaders as regards the concept of Indo-Pacific and its intended terms of reference would not only have been diplomatic, but essential.

Since its creation, IPSUS has given birth to other geopolitical groupings with a clear focus on the Pacific. The trilateral security pact (AUKUS), involving Australia, UK and the US, was created in 2021. AUKUS’ nuclear ambition is envisaged to be at loggerheads with PIF’s Treaty of Rarotonga. AUKUS’ membership has grown to include France. The harmful legacy of France and UK nuclear testing in the Pacific is still fresh in the minds of many Pacific islanders today. Increased AUKUS membership of other metropolitan powers is also being envisaged.

Then the Partners for the Blue Pacific (PBP) was created in 2022. Six metropolitan powers, including Australia and New Zealand – the only two developed country members of the 18-member PIF –  are signatories. PBP, in particular, is heavily criticised by regional commentators. Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka at the University of Hawaii, for instance, was reported to have said that “such initiative rides roughshod over established regional processes”.

Such a thought may have crossed SG Puna’s mind when presenting his keynote address at the PTL-PF conference. He may have also been wondering how the PBP will configure any meeting with PIF Leaders (PIFL), if and when that moment arrives. With Australia and NZ in both camps, how will they present and place themselves at the conference table? PBP has been reported to have said that it will resort to a ”strategic equilibrium” approach as a means to seeking consensus when it meets with Forum Leaders. To SG Puna, this would be totally untried and a nonentity. It may just be an empty concept.

Following the creation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States in 2022, the US was quick in releasing its ‘Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership’, with fourteen PICs later in the year. The Declaration was signed in Washington on 29 September 2022.

I analysed this Declaration in my IB article last November: ‘Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership Abrogates Established Order’, which touched on the Declaration’s shortfalls and contradictions.

Under the Declaration, the US Government negotiates additional bilateral agreements with PICs. So far, it seems that only Fiji has signed an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with the US. IPEF is a US-led initiative that wants to see convergence among a range of countries including ANZ, India, Malaysia, among others.

Some regional commentators have considered that IPEF is essentially the US’ response to the increased engagement of China in the Pacific. This is based on the White House’s own declaration that China was combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.

Now, SG Puna is in the middle of all these geopolitical tensions that abound in the Pacific. And one can sympathise with him, trying to rationalise the pros and cons of what is taking place. To have assessed the situation as ‘strategic manipulation’ on the part of the Americans can only imply that he had given the situation thought and that he could counter, should there be adverse reactions to his utterances.

He is also aware that a statement from him on this matter can have decisive implications on how PICs align themselves to global powers. In the context of a bipolar world that had prevailed until recently, any statement considered inimical against one party would naturally draw PICs to the other party.

That is no longer the case. A multipolar world now prevails. If the US is in the bad book of PIF’s SG Puna, where will PICs turn to? China was the natural choice before. That is not necessarily the case today. I wonder whether SG Puna had deliberated on an option when he presented his keynote address at the PTL-PF.

The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister, and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.