International relations | The Pacific

17 December 2021

The Pacific region is facing new opportunities for regional cooperation, but also new challenges, Denghua Zhang and Walter Diamana write.

For five decades, Pacific Island countries have used regionalism as a primary vehicle to promote development and security. Despite some notable successes over the past few decades, the Pacific regional project is facing its greatest challenge yet, as subregional divisions and geostrategic competition tear at it from within and without.

Contributing to this are problems of overlapping authority and competition between regional institutions that are weighing down organisations and governments at a time when they need to be at their most adaptable.

In the past, regionalism within the Pacific has been helped by the fact that many Pacific Island countries share similar geographical, demographic and resource features. This includes remoteness to international markets, small populations with a high proportion dispersed in rural areas and outer islands, and a lack of natural resources.

These shared factors make it natural for Pacific leaders to seek regional cooperation to help address development and security challenges, as they have done in the past.

Pacific regionalism has been boosted by notable achievements in the past decades. For example, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) continues to be the most important regional political body, the University of the South Pacific educates a large number of graduates in the region, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community remains the most important provider for science, technology and other technical disciplines.

Another success story concerns the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, a locally-created entity that elevated fisheries revenue for member countries from US$64 million in 2010 to US$501 million in 2018.

More on this: Has the ‘Pacific way’ lost its way?

Shared concerns also unite Pacific Island countries in international settings. In their speeches at the 2021 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Pacific leaders raised common concerns, such as the impacts of climate change, ocean conservation and sustainable development, and the need to ensure Pacific maritime zones and rights are not affected by rising sea levels.

Climate change is the best example of Pacific Island countries representing their joint concerns, with regional leaders reiterating their bottom line of a 1.5°C rise as a target for all nations. In September 2020, Solomon Islands High Commissioner Robert Sisilo told the Australian Federal Parliament, “Lest we forget, climate change – not COVID-19, not even China – is the biggest threat to our security”.

In recognition of the gravity of new challenges, and Pacific Island countries’ capacity and resource constraints, Pacific countries have committed to promoting regional cooperation. Thus, the Blue Pacific initiative and the Boe Declaration on Regional Security were adopted in 2017 and 2018 with Pacific countries vowing to take a collective approach to regional development and security, underpinned by conservation, sustainable development and an inclusive concept of security.

PIF countries are also in the process of developing the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.

There are, however, new forces emerging which have destabilised Pacific regionalism. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the increasing geostrategic competition between traditional powers and China occurring in the Pacific.

In 2019, Dame Meg Taylor, then Secretary General of PIF, urged Pacific Island countries to deal with large powers together, reminding them to think “as a collective rather than only considering bilateral gains”.

Nevertheless, driven by their own national interests, individual Pacific Island countries have taken varied positions.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) recently called for a détente and cooperation between external powers. Palau and the Marshall Islands have thrown their support behind the United States as it competes with China. While other countries, such as Fiji and Solomon Islands, are seeking to balance their foreign relations.

More on this: Pacific Step-up or business as usual?

It is important to remember that the United States is not the only country competing with a rising China for influence in the region. China’s rivalries with Japan and Taiwan are also intensifying. For example, China and Japan have been lobbying strongly for support from the region on the issue of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform, with China opposing Japan’s bid for permanent membership.

In their addresses to the 2021 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), countries such as Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Solomon Islands took a non-committal strategy, calling for the advancement of UNSC reform and starting text-based negotiations while avoiding openly supporting Japan. In contrast, FSM explicitly backed Japan’s bid.

Similarly, the Taiwan issue is further dividing the region. Taiwan’s remaining regional diplomatic partners — Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu — voiced firm support for Taiwanese sovereignty at the 2021 UNGA.

However, the other 10 Pacific nations have recently reaffirmed their support of the ‘One China’ policy at bilateral meetings, such as at the first China–Pacific foreign ministers’ meeting in October 2021.

Beyond the competing interests of great powers, another challenge relates to the overlapping authorities of regional organisations. The Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific has nine regional agencies that, to some extent, replicate similar issues for the same member countries and territories. Annual contributions are at times an additional burden to member countries.

The large number of regional organisations can also lead to competition for external funding, which could tie these organisations to the agenda of donors.

As Collin Beck, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade in Solomon Islands, expressed: “We oversold the concept of regionalism, so much so that we have given a free pass to many potential partners who are now avoiding conducting genuine dialogue and cooperation with member states over their regional contribution.”

Furthermore, the divergent interests of subregional groups are adding to the complexity of Pacific regionalism.

This issue was brought to the fore in early 2021, as the five Micronesian countries – Palau, Marshall Islands, FSM, Nauru and Kiribati – announced their intention to withdraw from PIF due to a disagreement over the election of the Forum’s secretary general. While the long-term effects of this split are still unknown, it is unlikely that division within the Pacific’s foremost intergovernmental organisation will help the region pursue its collective interests in the face of assertive outside powers.

The Forum fracture emphasises that the Pacific regional project is entering uncharted seas. As geostrategic competition increases, Pacific Island states will more frequently find themselves the subject of attention by large powers.

Whilst this will in many cases bring new opportunities for development, it can also be a double-edged sword as the powerful players have their own interests in the region which may not align with the goals of Island states. It is important therefore that the Pacific Islands adapt and find new ways to cooperate, lest they drown in division.

This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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