Forum to consider Biketawa Plus security declaration

BY Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan at the Pacific Islands Forum, Nauru

Pacific leaders will consider a new Biketawa Plus declaration on regional security, as they gather in Nauru for the 49th Pacific Islands Forum.

The draft statement describes climate change as “the single greatest threat” to Pacific security. The focus on climate rather than more traditional notions of defence and national security highlights potential tensions amongst Forum member countries over the resources allocated to development and human security above other strategic concerns.

The regional organisation has long argued climate change is a core security challenge, affecting environment, economy and livelihoods. The Forum’s agenda is crowded however with transnational security threats and the rising influence of “non-traditional” development partners such as China.

This week, Forum leaders will review the draft declaration for adoption as a new security framework, to update the statement from the 2000 leaders meeting in Biketawa, Kiribati.

In the lead up to this week’s meeting in Nauru, outgoing Forum chair Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa said: “Biketawa Plus is an outward looking declaration that acknowledges the changing geostrategic regional environment and commits members to work closer together to promote collective sovereignty (including through the ‘Blue Pacific’ narrative), to strengthen information sharing and to combat new and emerging security risks.”

After consultations across the region, the draft Biketawa Plus declaration was approved by Forum Foreign Ministers at their meeting in Apia in early August. The draft declaration shifts the agenda to “an expanded concept of security inclusive of human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritising environmental security, and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change.”

It reaffirms that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor said that the regional consultations to prepare the declaration put this issue at the centre of the debate: “Some of the countries may not be happy about it, because it states that climate impact is the central greatest threat. But all of us who come from island states know that it is a threat, whether you’re living right near the sea or living high in the mountains, the impacts of climate on agriculture and food security – the people know this and they’re talking about it.”

Across the region, churches, women’s organisations and community groups have long argued that the regional debate on security needs to be translated into real action on livelihoods and human security. Many ordinary people feel that regional interventions are not moving quickly enough to address their daily concerns: more jobs, improved livelihoods, better basic services and equitable distribution of the benefits of the nation’s resources, especially for the bulk of the population who live in rural areas and outer islands.

Dame Meg Taylor emphasised that these concerns were at the forefront of community consultations that led to the draft document.

“Food security was the paramount issue,” she said. “Human security was important. Security around land, health and personal security was very important. There was also a real concern about loss of culture around the region and relying on our traditions so that people felt secure in their own society. Food security was very much linked to climactic impacts where people were saying, ‘This is going to change the way we live, this is going to have an impact on our security, now and for future generations’.”

At a time when Pacific civil society is pushing for greater action on human rights, including the rights of women, the right to self-determination for colonised peoples and rights for people displaced by conflict, political persecution and climate change, it seems some Forum member governments are wary of international scrutiny of domestic policy.

The draft declaration includes a number of provisions “respecting the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Forum Members” and “assert the sovereign right of every Member to conduct its national affairs free of external interference and coercion.”

There is no mention of the words “human rights” in the draft, although it recalls “the principles under the [2000] Biketawa Declaration such as commitment to good governance, belief in the liberty of the individual under the law, upholding democratic processes and institutions and recognising the vulnerability of member countries to threats to their security.”

Regional intervention

The new Biketawa Plus framework extends Forum policy developed two decades ago, at a time of significant security crises, including the 1998-2003 conflict in Solomon Islands, the international intervention in Timor-Leste and the 2000 coup in Fiji.

At the 2000 Forum meeting in Kiribati, leaders issued the declaration on regional intervention and good governance, recognising “the need in time of crisis or in response to members’ request for assistance, for action to be taken on the basis of all members of the Forum being part of the Pacific Islands extended family.”

After early years of neglect on Pacific policy, the Howard Government in Australia drove a range of new security interventions after 2000. These included the Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP) with police deployments in Papua New Guinea, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), and the 2004 nomination of Australian diplomat Greg Urwin as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum (an unprecedented step, given that the position had always been held by a Pacific Islander).

In the early years of the Solomon Islands crisis, Australia had been reluctant to intervene – in 2000, the Howard government refused a request from the Solomon Islands for the deployment of a small contingent of Australian Federal Police officers to Honiara. Even as late as January 2003, then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, argued that “sending in Australian troops to occupy Solomon Islands would be folly in the extreme…The fundamental problem is that foreigners do not have answers for the deep-seated problems afflicting Solomon Islands.”

Within months, however, RAMSI became the region’s largest security initiative, lasting for 13 years and costing A$2.8 billion.

RAMSI won popular support for the rapid demilitarisation of the political and social crisis and the subsequent destruction of weapons. But later “state-building” and policing operations were more controversial. Over this period, 7,280 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel were deployed to the Solomon Islands under Operation Anode, working with the New Zealand and Papua New Guinea Defence Forces and the Tonga Defence Services (TDS). RAMSI’s Participating Police Force (PPF) involved officers from every Forum member country.

Another major intervention under Biketawa was the Pacific Regional Assistance for Nauru (PRAN), created in 2004 as a mechanism for Australia and other Forum countries to operate in Nauru. PRAN did not include a military component, but this regional intervention operated for nearly six years, with the placement of Australian and other Forum personnel in key positions in Nauru government departments (in the mid-2000s, Australians served as Nauru Police Commissioner, Secretary of Finance and Chief Utilities Officer, amongst other key positions). In January 2006, Iosefa Maiava of Samoa left his position as Deputy Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat to take up the post of Nauru Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Biketawa also provided the framework for the regional response to Fiji’s coups, especially after the abrogation of the Fijian constitution in 2009 by the Bainimarama government.

Strategic denial

As part of the regional “Blue Pacific” agenda, Forum island countries are prioritising the oceans, climate, maritime security and fisheries management. Island governments have argued that climate change is a security issue and there is also a need to address significant transnational threats such as illegal unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) and the sustainability of ocean resources.

Some member governments are also concerned about the leakage of nuclear waste into the marine environment, such as radioactive waste stored on Runit island in Marshall Islands or more than 2,500 tonnes of nuclear contaminated material dumped by France off Moruroa Atoll.

But the decision to expand the 2000 Biketawa declaration into Biketawa Plus comes at a time of major geopolitical change across the islands region. For the ANZUS allies, regional relations have been complicated by increasing Chinese economic and trade cooperation with Forum island countries, ongoing debates about self-determination in New Caledonia, Bougainville and West Papua and the involvement of “non-traditional” partners like Indonesia in regional organisations like the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

The foreign policies of Australia and New Zealand have a number of constants, including a policy of strategic denial towards perceived enemies who might establish a military and political foothold in the Pacific islands. For this reason, both governments have highlighted the rising strategic threat from China, and raised concern over Chinese investment in port facilities that might later be used for military purposes (ironically, a Chinese corporation already has a 99-year lease over the port of Darwin!).

In contrast, island leaders have welcomed Chinese investment and loans through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), state-owned corporations and the Belt and Road Initiative, although many are debating the potential for debt to be leveraged for strategic purposes.

Both Australia and New Zealand have said they will expand their engagement with the region over the last few years, in response to perceived Chinese strategic advances in an area long regarded as an ANZUS lake. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a 2016 commitment to “step up” engagement with Forum island countries and in March 2018, the incoming Ardern government in New Zealand announced a “reset” of relations with the region.

While they both Australia and New Zealand both issued Defence White Papers in 2017 which emphasised traditional concepts of regional “stability.” This priority is being backed up with significant defence spending. Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) with Papua New Guinea has grown over the last three years. In 2016-17, the DCP budget allocated A$29.1 million to Papua New Guinea, while the 2018-19 budget estimate has increased to A$42.7 million. Later this year, Papua New Guinea will receive the first of a new generation of Pacific patrol boats, under construction in Australia as part of the A$2 billion Pacific Maritime Security Program.

With the 2017 Defence White Paper setting out a renewed focus on maritime aerial surveillance, Australia is also massively increasing its DCP funding for the wider South Pacific region. With $43.6 million spent in 2016-17 under the DCP, this amount increased to $55.5 million last year, while the 2018-19 budget estimate has grown to $84.9 million.