On 13-16 August 2019 the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum held their 50th meeting. The theme, as chosen by their host and current chair Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, was ‘Securing our Future in the Pacific’. The leaders’ meeting of 2018 provides context for what transpired in 2019 and why it is significant.
At the 2018 meeting in Nauru, all members of the Pacific Islands Forum signed the Boe Declaration on Regional Security. The Boe Declaration came from extensive consultations throughout the region. Climate change was elevated to the status of the ‘single greatest threat’ facing the region at the Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting. This was continued into the final text that was accepted and signed at the leaders’ meeting in Nauru.
The focus on an expanded concept of security — one that is centred on human security rather than geostrategic anxiety — is notable in the Boe Declaration. It includes a statement that recognises an ‘increasingly complex regional security environment’. But the foundational narrative is of ‘an expanded concept of security, which addresses the wide range of security issues in the region, both traditional and non-traditional’. This is the starting point for discussions about security in the Pacific islands region.
The leaders of Pacific island nations are seeking security, not securitisation. They are concerned about moves towards militarisation in their neighbourhood. When reports of US plans to spend US$300 million to expand naval facilities in northern Australia were received, the Foreign Minister of Vanuatu, Ralph Regenvanu tweeted, ‘Can we stop militarising the Pacific please?’
During Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape and his delegation’s visit to Australia, the governor of Manus province, Charlie Benjamin, restated his disapproval of the proposed redevelopment of the Lombrum base by Papua New Guinea, the United States and Australia.
These voices and others need to be heard and acknowledged. No amount of showing up will achieve the lasting partnerships that regional security requires if the voices of Pacific leaders are disregarded.
In 2019, leaders endorsed the Boe Declaration Action Plan. In particular, ‘leaders requested that traditional and cultural norms be acknowledged and considered as an underpinning imperative of all security initiatives’.
Persistent cultural tone-deafness contributed to the diplomatic missteps of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his team in Tuvalu. This characterises (or is perceived to characterise) Australian engagements in the region. Sopoaga’s criticism of Australia’s behaviour as ‘un-Pacific’ is a harsh statement from a Polynesian statesman. Australia must invest in cultural competency quickly if they want to be the security partner of choice among the Pacific island countries.
Since 2016, and particularly since late 2018, Australia has focussed a great deal of diplomatic and political energy on a ‘Pacific step-up’. Led personally by Morrison, this is a ‘whole of government’ exercise which is designed to put the Pacific at the heart of Australian foreign policy. This initiative has been widely welcomed in the region, although it is generally perceived as being driven by a desire to counter the rising influence of China.
The Pacific step-up has been compromised by what happened in Tuvalu. When asked if Australia’s conduct would push Pacific states closer to China, the Prime Minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, stated bluntly, ‘They [China] don’t go down and tell the world that we’ve given this much money to the Pacific islands. They don’t do that. They’re good people, definitely better than Morrison, I can tell you that’. These sentiments were reiterated by Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati during a visit to Australia. These people do not speak for the Pacific but their voices are influential and the fact that they are making these public statements is noteworthy in itself.
Australian policymakers need to recognise that if the step-up falters, this may have negative impacts on their ability to ‘bring along’ like-minded nations who are seeking to shore up or enhance their influence in the region. There is an emerging fault line between Australia and New Zealand when it comes to addressing the region’s biggest security threats. Its significance was borne out when New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern strongly aligned with the island states.
The United Kingdom has commenced a ‘Pacific Uplift’ and has stated that addressing climate change sits at the heart of this positioning. US policymakers and their interlocutors seek to ascertain how they can establish a presence beyond the Compact States. They may be concerned that looking to Australia as their pre-eminent guide to Pacific engagement may not be as beneficial as it may have first appeared.
The truism that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ applies in the Pacific as it does elsewhere. As Anna Powles has argued often, relationships are currency in the Pacific and for the currency to grow in value, careful investment is required. Looking ahead to the 2020 meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Vanuatu, the country’s Foreign Minister issued a point of guidance that is also applicable to all who seek better relationships in the Pacific. It is that ‘Australia must understand that relationships in the region are not just about the funding of projects’.
This is a clear direction for getting the Pacific ‘step-up’ back onto a firmer footing.
Tess Newton Cain is the Principal of TNC Pacific Consulting. She tweets @CainTess.
This article is based on a presentation to the Kategalan Forum hosted by the Prospect Foundation in Taiwan.
This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 30th of August 2019.