A key challenge for the Forum is to maintain its solidarity as staunchly pro-Blue Pacific...where we are custodians of some of the world’s richest biodiversity and marine and terrestrial resources. Leaders have articulated a desire for a shift in the development trajectory for the Pacific, through the Blue Pacific narrative and through it the opportunity to exercise our will. This is the strategic lens through which any conversation over China, and the associated geopolitical and geostrategic environment we find ourselves in, must occur. Our political conversations and settlements must be driven by the well-being of our Blue Pacific continent and its people, not by the goals and ambitions of others.- From a Keynote address by Dame Meg Taylor at a Symposium on ‘The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands’ at the University of the South Pacific, Port Vila, Vanuatu on 8 February 2019.
Dame Meg Taylor, the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum is a Papua New Guinean lawyer and diplomat.
The first point I wish to stress is that the focus of the Forum and its Secretariat is on how to secure the future viability, prosperity and wellbeing of the Blue Pacific. The Forum seeks genuine partnerships with all actors who are willing to join us along the pathway towards that vision. Therefore, I reject the terms of the dilemma which presents the Pacific with a choice between a China alternative and our traditional partners. Unfortunately, this framing remains the dominant narrative in the public debate about our region in the context of today’s geostrategic competition.
Such a narrative tends to portray the nations of the Pacific as passive collaborators or victims of a new wave of colonialism. In this context it is often difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue over relations with China without being labelled “pro-China” or perhaps even as naïve. Today I want to emphasise that a key challenge for the Forum is to maintain its solidarity as staunchly pro-Blue Pacific. The alternative we seek is an alternative path for development that can secure a better future for the people of our region.
Indeed the search for alternative, more meaningful paths for development for the Pacific is not new. The founding of the Pacific Island Forum itself can perhaps be understood in this way, with Pacific states working together to effectively exercise their newly attained sovereignty for the benefits of Pacific development. The ‘Pacific Way’ was perhaps the most well-known framing of an alternative approach to development at that time. Civil society too has often called upon each other and the Leaders of the region to find alternative approaches to development that are consistent with Pacific values. In 2011 The Pacific Conference of Churches produced the short think piece ‘Rethinking Oceania’ or ‘Rethinking the House of God’ which continues to be influential amongst civil society and faith based organisations throughout the region.
Recently Forum Leaders have reinvigorated their commitment to the development of the region in a manner that reflects their shared Pacific values and concerns. In 2017 Forum Leaders endorsed the Blue Pacific narrative as the core driver of collective action for advancing the Leaders vision under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. The narrative explicitly recognises that as the Blue Pacific, we are custodians of some of the world’s richest biodiversity and marine and terrestrial resources. Through our stewardship of the Pacific Ocean, we must do all we can to protect the wellbeing of Pacific peoples, and indeed Pacific nation-states and the ocean continent they inhabit.
To date, the Blue Pacific narrative has been successful in building solidarity and shifting the prevailing narrative of the region as small, dependent and vulnerable. Going forward, we need to build on this and develop concrete strategies that leverage the increased interest in our region and secure the future of the Blue Pacific.
Last year, the theme for the Nauru Forum meeting called for a stronger Pacific and the need to more assertively exercise our will in determining the Pacific we want. The theme recognises that our developmental challenges are not only due to our size and remoteness, but also are the product of the prevailing global economic system, which has undermined the health of our oceans and the safety of our climate. Through its theme, Nauru is seeking opportunities to build on the Blue Pacific narrative and reinvigorate political ownership of our regional development aspirations through rethinking development approaches and identifying, as a collective, opportunities for innovation.
So to summarise my first point: when considering “the China alternative” in the region, I would argue that we must do so from the perspective of securing our future as the Blue Pacific continent.
“Friends to All”
My second point: Forum Leaders have made it clear on a number of occasions that they place great value on open and genuine relationships, and inclusive and enduring partnerships within our region and beyond. A ‘friends to all approach’ is commonly accepted, while some have made a more formal commitment to this principle through their non-aligned status.
China’s increasing diplomatic and economic presence in the region, coupled with its growing economic and political strength globally, brings both challenges and opportunities for our Blue Pacific. In general, Forum members view China’s increased actions in the region as a positive development, one that offers greater options for financing and development opportunities – both directly in partnership with China, and indirectly through the increased competition in our region.
Indeed, if there is one word that might resonate amongst all Forum members when it comes to China, that word is access. Access to markets, technology, financing, infrastructure. Access to a viable future. For example, Australia’s access to China’s markets make it the former’s largest trading partner in terms of both imports and exports. In 2017, China surpassed Australia as New Zealand’s largest trading partner for goods and services.
To a large extent, Forum Island countries have been excluded from the sorts of financing, technology and infrastructure that can enable us to fully engage in a globalised world. Many countries see the rise of China and its increasing interest in the region as providing an opportunity to rectify this. Indeed, we have seen large increases in both financing for development and trade with China over the past decade or so.
More than this, and to reiterate my first point, many island countries see the current context as providing an opportunity for ensuring a Pacific that is (to use the words of former Kiribati president Iereme Tabai), “a viable community in our own right and at our own standard and with a feeling of pride and self-respect”.
To be sure, we need not only think of these opportunities in relation to China specifically – their market, products, technology and so on – but also the broader range of opportunities emerging in the context of a rising China. China’s presence has meant that other actors are resetting their priorities and stepping up engagement in the Pacific. We are also seeing some new partners emerging as well as the return of partners who had long left the region.
Therefore, the opportunities available to the Pacific are indeed many. Forum Leaders have a keen sense of the current historical moment and the opportunities it brings to realise better development outcomes for their country and its people. We are seeing offers and counter-offers by our partners. Within this context perhaps the key challenge facing the Blue Pacific is our ability to think through these opportunities as a collective rather than only considering bilateral gains. It is of course the prerogative of Forum Island Countries to leverage this situation for their national benefit. My point, however, is that it also provides an unprecedented opportunity to position our region for the future and secure cultural and ecological integrity, and generating our own wealth to ensure the social wellbeing of all Pacific Island people. So to summarise my second point: Our region is indeed crowded and complex. This provides immense opportunity for securing the future of the Blue Pacific.
A regional approach
Finally, I wish to reflect on what might be some concrete steps that we can take as a region in the context of a rising China. Progressing the region forward towards its vision for the Blue Pacific will require long-term and focused political dialogue, both amongst the Forum membership, and with our partners.
More generally, the Forum is already taking steps to improve its engagement with its partners. Last year Leaders called for a review of the meetings and processes of the Forum so as to enable more focused and strategic engagement.
Specifically in relation to China, I think it is timely and relevant for the Forum to commence dialogue on how it wishes to collectively engage with China. As I raised earlier, there is already much bilateral engagement between Forum members and China but the Forum is best placed to take the lead on regional Pacific strategies for cooperation with China.
It is also appropriate to consider the merits of establishing a Forum-China dialogue, perhaps in a similar manner to the PALM with Japan or the Africa-China Dialogue. China already has its own platform for engagement with the region, the China-Pacific Islands Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, a “multi-bilateral” grouping which enables for China to meet at a high level with the eight leaders of those Pacific Island Countries that recognise China. While there are diplomatic issues underpinning this Forum that must be acknowledged, we must not overlook the opportunities present for advancing the priorities of the Blue Pacific. This will require all Forum members and a greater say in setting the agenda accordingly.
Infrastructure remains a crucial requirement for ensuring resilience in the Pacific. China’s Belt and Road Initiative claims to be an open platform supporting greater trade and investment cooperation through, in particular, cooperation in major, long term plans for regional development. Nine Forum member countries – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Niue and New Zealand – have signed MoU’s to cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Considering the opportunities for collective engagement with the BRI merit careful analysis and discussion.
We also know that in response to China’s growing influence in the region, alternative infrastructure initiatives have been announced from Japan, the US and Australia. As the Blue Pacific, rather than playing the merits of one against another, we should consider exploring the potential value of partners working together for the benefit of the region. As I have said before, I would offer that channelling such assistance through the Pacific Resilience Facility is one of the many appropriate options for strengthening our will to drive our own pathways toward resilient development.
Furthermore, through the Pacific Resilience Facility we could also consider establishing common, regional criteria to help Forum members assess investments to ensure they are consistent with the long term vision and priorities for the Blue Pacific. The issue of infrastructure quality has already been a matter of public debate. Other standards might include environmental, social and cultural protections mechanisms. For example, under the BRI China has established an Ecological and Environmental Cooperation Plan which could be used to hold Chinese investments to account.
Finally, 2019 presents us with an important opportunity with Chile hosting APEC. In the Secretariat’s 2017 State of Pacific Regionalism Report, we raised the potential for the Pacific to be a bridge between China and Latin America. Extending China’s Maritime Silk Road through our Blue Pacific could provide opportunities for creating regional infrastructure and access that could inspire new markets of trade between Asia, the Pacific and Latin America; not to mention between Pacific Island countries themselves. It could also deliver much needed infrastructure and technology for building Blue Pacific resilience. The 2019 APEC meeting could provide the catalyst for dialogue on such opportunities.
The themes from the last two Forum meetings have strongly articulated Leaders’ desire for a shift in the development trajectory for the Pacific, through the Blue Pacific narrative and through it the opportunity to exercise our will. This is the strategic lens through which any conversation over China, and the associated geopolitical and geostrategic environment we find ourselves in, must occur. Our political conversations and settlements must be driven by the well-being of our Blue Pacific continent and its people, not by the goals and ambitions of others.
The one-day symposium ‘The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands’ at the University of the South Pacific, Port Vila, Vanuatu on 8 February 2019, aimed to address the nature and dynamics of China–Pacific Islands relationships, encounters between Chinese citizens and Pacific Islanders, soft-power diplomacy through training programs, and Chinese assistance, especially its concessional loans. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Islands Affairs (DPA), the University of Hawai‘i’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies (CPIS), and the University of the South Pacific’s School of Law.
Copyright: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat