Geopolitics looms larger than ever at Pacific Islands Forum summit
18 Jul 2022|

Last week’s meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders celebrated the region while confronting deeply familiar regional pressures.

The big questions rang out in Fiji as they have since the forum was created 51 years ago.

How does South Pacific regionalism protect the independence of the islands and deliver more for their people? What must the forum do as shield and tool to handle the big powers that always crowd the South Pacific?

The questions echo down from the first meeting of what became the South Pacific Forum in Wellington (August 1971) and the second meeting in Canberra (February 1972).

Ghosts from those times still stalk. Fundamentals do tend to have lasting force.

As the forum prepared for its first meeting in 1971, the historian Stuart Doran noted Australia’s worry that ‘a new organisation could provide a stage for attacks on, and attempts to reform, Australia’s attitudes to areas such as immigration policy, the trade imbalance with the South Pacific, and alleged economic exploitation. But difficulties of this kind were considered manageable “given authoritative and persuasive Australian participation”.’ Plus ça change …

From those creation moments in Wellington and Canberra, the kangaroo–kiwi double act has been a South Pacific feature.

Australia and New Zealand are enablers who want to belong; a core bit of region-making is deciding who is in or out. The forum helped two former colonial powers reinvent their roles and obtain full membership privileges.

The trans-Tasman twins offer strength, especially in financing the forum’s secretariat. An important bit of symbolism with a cash cost is that the kangaroo–kiwi contribution to the secretariat has been cut from 70% to 49%. The islands have chosen to pay more for what is theirs (helped by extra French cash from New Caledonia and French Polynesia).

As part of the forum’s foundation fabric, the Australia – New Zealand partnership has the smoothness of long effort. Beneath the surface, there’s always plenty of kangaroo–kiwi kicking and scratching about who is doing the thinking and the leading. Back in 1971 and 1972 there was much diplomatic rivalry and the Canberra system grouched about kiwi ‘grandstanding’. (Did I mention that some things never change?)

The double act worked well in Suva last week. The set-up work was done at the Sydney talks between prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Anthony Albanese. The foreign policy speech Ardern delivered at the Lowy Institute was a fine example of the kiwi ability to stand close to the kangaroo while seeing things differently.

Ardern’s good humour was much assisted by the reality that she and Albanese could revert to the traditional roles of good cop and good cop at the Pacific Islands Forum.

Albanese went to Suva with a new story to tell on Australia’s climate change commitment. At the last face-to-face summit in 2019, Australia inflicted wounds and took bruises in a rancorous climate debate that nearly crashed the leaders’ retreat.

The Suva summit was talked up as the friendliest ever (with leaders posing for selfies with Albanese), and it issued a communiqué that didn’t push Australia on coal or what Fiji calls ‘the fossil fuel addiction’.

The happy vibe was undermined by the empty chairs—Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Nauru. The Nauru absence was because of Covid-19, but Kiribati and the Marshalls were the result of Micronesia’s exit from the forum.

The repair work should see Marshall Islands and the rest of Micronesia return, but Kiribati delivered a pre-summit shock by declaring that it’ll go ahead with its withdrawal from the forum.

At its creation, the South Pacific Forum was a Melanesian and Polynesian affair. Micronesia doesn’t feel the history in the same way, just as the geography imposes different perspectives.

Kiribati’s exit was as much about domestic politics as it was about unhappiness with the forum. But as with much in the islands these days, there’s a China element in the story. Join the thoughts: China is today a factor in the internal politics of South Pacific states; this is more than the old China–Taiwan wrangle over diplomatic recognition.

When the forum was created, the newly independent states wanted an instrument to handle their former colonisers. Now it’s great-power competition.

The islands struggle to push back at the new Indo-Pacific construct and their inevitable role in the central balance contest. As Meg Taylor, the forum’s secretary-general in 2018, described the task back then, the aim was to ensure regional priorities and retain strategic autonomy.

Alas for the island status quo, expanding power systems always expand and the history of the South Pacific over the centuries since it was a Spanish lake is that the big powers always come to play.

The new forum response is the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific to confront ‘critical challenges such as climate change, sustainable development and security’.

The quest to be friends to all but beholden to none gets tougher.

The contest is as disruptive as it is galvanising, as Anna Powles and Joanne Wallis note in advocating the Pacific’s need for an institutionalised mechanism, akin to the ASEAN Regional Forum, so island states can negotiate with partners on security. Join this with their writing on track 1.5 and track 2 dialogue in the Pacific. Powles and Wallis are a classy version of what the kangaroo–kiwi double act can do for the region.

The ASEAN Regional Forum was created in 1993–94, an optimistic time after the end of the Cold War when the Asia–Pacific was happily making new institutions.

A similar South Pacific security effort today responds to the new cold war. It’d draw on the hard lessons of the ASEAN forum’s three decades; it is still stuck on the first rung of the security-creation business, which is ‘confidence building’.

The ASEAN forum draws foreign ministers from across the Indo-Pacific for the annual meeting of foreign ministers. A Pacific version could be built on the existing meeting of foreign ministers, held before the leaders’ summit.

At 51, the Pacific Islands Forum is a successful and confident expression of the region, but in the security realm it certainly needs some confidence building.