Great Powers Adrift in the Blue Pacific

Last November, a small group of Cook Islands women rallied outside the Pacific Islands Forum as island leaders held their annual summit in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. The Forum was discussing pressing issues around the climate emergency, development assistance and the sustainability of the oceans. But the protest was organised in response to Israel’s brutal assault on civilians and non-combatants in Gaza following the Hamas attacks of 7 October 2023. With banners and signs, the women called on Pacific leaders to ‘please condemn the killing of displaced Palestinians and God’s innocent children in Gaza’.

Cook Islands is a nation of just 17,000 people in the eastern Pacific, and Gaza is more than 18,000 kilometres distant from Rarotonga. But this protest symbolises the role of Pacific island nations as active players in world events, interconnected with global networks of trade, militarisation, resource extraction and capital accumulation.

Through the Forum and other regional institutions, the diverse nation states and territories of the Pacific are seeking to promote their own vision of security and development in the midst of the climate emergency. This led to adoption of ‘the Blue Pacific’ at the 2017 Forum as a concept that frames collective Pacific agendas on climate, development and the oceans, despite ongoing client relationships with international players.

Against the odds, Pacific peoples continue to engage in world affairs as survivors, not victims. As the Pacific Climate Warriors proclaim, ‘we are not drowning, we are fighting!’ Pacific island governments are active in many diplomatic forums, with ambassadors appointed as the inaugural UN Special Envoy on the Ocean and the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Climate Change. Peacekeepers from island nations are deployed across the world, from Lebanon and the Golan Hights to Cyprus, Sarajevo and South Sudan. Pacific activists and diplomats have led campaigns for assistance to nuclear survivors under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Atoll nations are promoting new norms of international law such as the 2021 Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-related Sea-Level Rise. And Pacific governments have long mobilised through multilateral organisations such as the UN General Assembly, the Commonwealth, the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States and the Pacific Islands Forum—institutions where ‘one nation, one vote’ gives them standing alongside larger states despite their small populations and limited economic clout.

But even with this activism, playing David to Goliath only goes so far. Today, multilateral institutions are increasingly sidelined and the geopolitical competition of the multipolar world adds new complexity to regional politics. In the twenty-first century, international rhetoric about the ‘rules-based order’ and ‘respect for international law’ is undercut by the brutal reality of power. Pacific islanders are swept aside as Russia, China and the United States wield their veto in the UN Security Council, strike deals in the back rooms of global climate negotiations and expand their arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Fighting for the Blue Pacific

For more than fifty years, since its founding in 1971, the Pacific Islands Forum has served as the principal regional institution that engages with global agendas on trade, politics and security. Today, the eighteen-strong Forum membership includes fourteen independent island nations, two French colonial dependencies, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. At their 2022 summit in Suva, Forum leaders formally adopted a ‘2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent’. Then, at last year’s summit in Rarotonga, they endorsed a 2050 implementation plan to put meat on the bones of the strategic framework and set priorities for regional co-operation.

The very power of the ‘Blue Pacific’ is shown by the way that great and powerful friends are attempting to co-opt and repurpose the concept as part of their own Indo-Pacific strategies. With little shame, the Biden administration has co-opted the language of the ‘Blue Pacific’—without the substance. In 2022, regional commentators were angered by Washington’s creation of a network to coordinate aid programs with Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Japan, dubbed ‘the Partners for the Blue Pacific’. The founding membership excluded not only Beijing but also France and the EU. It was set up without formal consultation with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, undercutting regional agendas and institutions.

As the United States, Australia and other allies seek to maintain a policy of strategic denial across Oceania, they have ramped up engagement in the islands. This is largely directed at China, but is also complicated by competition between US and EU corporate interests, as the purchase of AUKUS submarines for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has highlighted.

Last September, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches Reverend James Bhagwan highlighted these complex dynamics at a church synod in Tahiti, saying: ‘The rhetoric, the talk by the militarised and colonial and neo-colonial countries around the Indo-Pacific Strategy, around climate change and even the Blue Pacific is a way of using security to control our region and to gain support from so-called democratic countries to shut down processes of decolonisation, of self-determination’.

‘The pressure on Pacific Island countries to choose sides in this ‘new Cold War’ is beginning to unravel the cords that bind our regional, sub-regional and national political and social structures’, Bhagwan added. ‘For local communities, the concern is not geopolitics but improvement of their wellbeing through better healthcare, infrastructure development, education and employment opportunities across their islands and highlands’.

More diplomatically, a March 2023 speech by Prime Minister of Sāmoa Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa stressed that ‘in the Pacific, we feel our partners have fallen short of acknowledging the integrity of Pacific leadership, and the responsibility they carry for every decision made as a collective, and individually, in order to garner support for the sustainable development of our nations’.

The region’s fourteen votes at the United Nations ensure a lot of attention. Within the UN system, Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) are members of the wider Asia-Pacific bloc alongside China, India, and other Asian powers (Israel, banned from the United Nations’s Asia-Pacific group, joins Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand as the one of the ‘others’ of the Western European and Others Group). PSIDS are also active in the 39-member Alliance of Small Island States, which makes up around 20 per cent of the UN membership.

In a multipolar world, this voting bloc attracts attention from major powers in the UN General Assembly, multilateral agencies and summits like the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties. For this reason, more than twenty Forum Dialogue Partners (FDP) vie for influence and votes while pledging solidarity with island agendas. These Dialogue Partners comprise the obvious world powers—the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the EU—as well as smaller players. At the 2023 Rarotonga Forum, diplomats from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine worked the corridors, seeking formal Dialogue Partner status and island votes, at a time when the United Nations and International Court of Justice were debating aggression and genocide in Europe and the Middle East.

As a way of sorting the sheep from the goats, the 2023 Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting proposed that FDP applicants make a financial contribution to a newly created regional funding hub, the Pacific Resilience Facility (PRF), as a criterion for obtaining FDP status. In response, Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Aqeel Al-Khateeb handed over a US$50 million grant to the PRF!

In their engagement with diverse new players in the region, island states are trialling different ways of working, investigating alternative economic policies to the Washington Consensus. Hundreds of islanders have been trained as medical officers and nurses in Cuba; government officials travel to China, Korea and Indonesia to better understand the role of state-owned enterprises in the economy; provincial and national governments in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Caledonia develop joint ventures with transnational corporations from China and Korea rather than companies from Japan or the EU. This involves them in a dizzying array of bi-, tri- and multilateral institutions, sometimes with contradictory results.

Entente cordial: France and Australia in the Pacific

While Australian debates on the Asia-Pacific region focus on AUKUS, the France-Australia Strategic Partnership also highlights the many contradictions facing the Albanese government. Based on its claims over New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, France presents itself as a ‘Pacific nation’ rather than a European colonial power. French diplomats present Paris as an ally on disaster response, climate change and oceans policy even as they seek to remove New Caledonia and French Polynesia from the list of non-self-governing territories at the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation.

Canberra wants to be the ‘security partner of choice’ in the Pacific islands, but finds it hard to meld its island engagement with its broader global foreign commitments. Successive Australian governments have been forced to manoeuvre between the Indo-Pacific strategies of Western allies and the desire of many island neighbours to maintain a foreign policy of ‘friends to all, enemies to none’.

As it seeks to rebuild strategic ties with Paris that were shattered by the 2021 AUKUS announcement, the ALP government has abandoned past commitments on decolonisation and human rights. In December 2023, Australia and France both abstained on the annual UN General Assembly decolonisation resolution ‘Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’ (the vote was 102–3, with the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel voting No). France was the only country in the world to abstain on another UN resolution calling for ‘education programmes for the Territory in order to foster an awareness among the people of their right to self-determination’.

As Kanak, Māʿohi, West Papuans, CHamoru, Bougainvilleans and other Indigenous peoples proclaim this very right to self-determination, Australia’s backsliding on decolonisation in the region is more overt, despite Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s 2022 call to integrate ‘First Nations perspectives’ into Australian foreign policy. Supporting the expansion of US military bases in Guam and French bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, Australian diplomats told the UN Fourth Committee in October 2023 that the ALP government objected to a call for ‘administering powers to terminate military activities and eliminate military bases’, believing ‘in the sovereign rights of nations to defend the territories they administer’. Just weeks later, Senator Wong and her French counterpart Catherine Colonna announced a new France-Australia Roadmap, which includes security provisions that allow the ADF to expand its use of French military bases in New Caledonia while giving the Forces Armées en Nouvelle-Calédonie reciprocal rights to access Australia facilities.

When French President Macron toured Melanesia in July 2023, he presented France as a Pacific nation and a ‘balancing force’ against the ‘new imperialism’ that threatens islands’ sovereignty. Many people in the francophone Pacific, however, are worried about the old imperialism and France’s ongoing colonial role as the administering power of non-self-governing territories.

Pacific island leaders want more focus on regional security agendas, especially the climate emergency, with many pushing back against the ‘Indo-Pacific’ framing that dominates much academic and media commentary in Australia. Living with the health and environmental legacies of fifty years of Cold War nuclear testing, Pacific communities are at the forefront of international disarmament campaigning. Forum island states played a crucial role in developing the TPNW, which has unprecedented focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. After TPNW entered into force in January 2021, Kiribati joined Kazakhstan to lead international debate on the creation of new mechanisms for reparations to nuclear survivors. Despite their pledges of partnership with island nations, France and Britain joined Russia (!) and North Korea (!!) as the only four nations in the world to vote against a December 2023 UNGA resolution on assistance to nuclear survivors, co-sponsored by Kiribati and Kazakhstan.

The repetitive rhetoric from ALP ministers about ‘sovereignty’, ‘the Pacific family’ and the ‘rules-based order’ rings hollow, with many islanders keenly aware of the naked self-interest evident in much renewed engagement with the region. Talk of sovereignty rings hollow when colonial powers do not acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty, or respect the borders of post-colonial island nations. For example, France has long claimed waters around the disputed Matthew and Hunter Islands, located between Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Vanuatu’s claims to the islands are supported by New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence movement and Kanak Customary Senate, which both signed the Keamu Agreement in 2009. This act of Oceanic diplomacy, transcending colonial boundaries, highlights the importance of cultural relations at the heart of survival for Indigenous peoples.

As Penny Wong travelled to Noumea last year—a first for an Australian Foreign Minister—New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou diplomatically raised these diplomatic tensions. ‘The independence movement of New Caledonia—of which I’m a member—is in favour of non-alignment’, he said.

We regularly attend the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement. From the earliest days, we have supported a nuclear free Pacific—that’s even set out in the preamble of the draft Constitution of Kanaky that we submitted to the United Nations in 1986. When Australia decides to align itself with the United States in the framework of AUKUS to acquire nuclear submarines, it raises the question: if it starts here, where will it end? How does this impact the Treaty of Rarotonga and the Boe Declaration on security?

Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea served as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in 2014–21. Now liberated from the diplomacy required during her two terms of office, she has recently been outspoken about the way international players are undercutting Pacific regionalism. In a September 2023 policy paper for the Asia Society, Taylor pointedly argued that ‘our regional unity is deeply challenged and undermined by the encroaching influence of competing geopolitical agendas … Some PIF members prioritise relationships with powerful states such as the US, China, and France, at the expense of broader Pacific affiliations. This hierarchy of allegiances compromises the unity of the Pacific community’.

It will only get worse. In his October 2022 National Security Statement, US President Joe Biden proposed ‘a latticework of strong, resilient, and mutually reinforcing relationships’ through partnerships like AUKUS, the Quad, the Five Eyes intelligence network and the Blue Dot infrastructure program. The US policy statement argues that investing at home and aligning with allies is vital for ‘out-competing the PRC in the technological, economic, political, military, intelligence, and global governance domain’.

Hosting unprecedented White House summits for island leaders in 2022 and 2023, Biden has personally led the pushback against perceived Chinese influence in the Pacific islands. But US rhetoric about its commitment to the region is undercut by the chaos in the US Congress, and the depressing prospect of a Biden–Trump presidential contest. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives has refused to fund key provisions of Biden administration bills that would benefit island states (such as timely finance for climate adaptation, loss and damage and tuna fisheries).

The one area of bipartisan consensus in Washington is fear and loathing of Beijing, and Dame Meg Taylor has argued that ‘at the regional level, rather than seeking to surpass China’s improved position by also delivering on our development agenda, the response from the United States and its allies has been to subsume our narrative under their own geostrategic framework of strategic denial’.

In a world of nation states, the Pacific has a powerful network of regional political and technical institutions, such as the Forum, the Pacific Community and the University of the South Pacific. For years, leaders have discussed the idea of a Single Regional Organisation, with greater federal powers and more economic integration. But the divide and rule tactics of major powers and the historic diversity of island states—demographic, geographic, linguistic and constitutional—complicate regional unity. There are ongoing colonial legacies that affect relations between monarchies like the Kingdom of Tonga, independent republics like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga and the last confetti of empire—the remaining US, French and UK dependencies that were colonised in the nineteenth century but remain under colonial administration well into the twenty-first.

Even so, beyond the tourism fantasy that Pacific islands are ‘paradise’ (and the media trope they are ‘paradise lost’ failed states), island nations are interconnected with global resource, financial and political networks. Pacific politicians, scholars and activists grapple with the best ways to respond to global crises that are not particular to the islands: the climate emergency; the plague of violence against women and children in the home, family and workplace; debt, development and poverty in an era of austerity, demographic change and economic stagnation. Like others, Pacific islanders work to regulate transnational corporations and protect Indigenous rights at a time of resource extractivism, and maintain development goals even as major powers divert resources towards warfare in Europe and the Middle East.

Despite their image as small dots in a vast ocean, the Pacific islands step up on contemporary global concerns. For example in recent months, there have been protests across the region condemning Israel’s massacre in Gaza. Though small, the spread and diversity of rallies, vigils and petitions across the Pacific islands is unprecedented. Women’s groups in Fiji have rallied to call for ‘justice for Palestine’ and successfully persuaded the Rabuka government to support international calls for a ceasefire. In the Kingdom of Tonga and the extensive Tongan diaspora of the Pacific Rim, hundreds of people signed petitions criticising government support for Israel. There have been trade union protests in New Caledonia in solidarity with Palestine, dissent in the Marshall Islands—a key Israeli ally at the United Nations—and protest in the US territory of Guam, where Indigenous CHamoru have rallied for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the Gaza blockade, an increase in humanitarian aid and the cessation of US funding for Israel’s war on Palestine. As South Africa launched its genocide case before the International Court of Justice in January 2024, community organisations in Fiji organised live streaming of the hearings.

In a region still fighting against settler-colonialism—past and present—this strategic and humanitarian crisis has resonated into the smallest nations on earth. Compared to the mass rallies in London, Sana’a, Havana and New York, these solidarity protests are small, and there is still significant diplomatic support for Israel in the Pacific, drawing on Christian Zionism and faith traditions about the Holy Land. But despite Israeli hasbara, the massacre in Gaza has led to new anger over Israel’s occupation of Palestine and, in line with global trends, generated unprecedented support for Palestinian resistance.

Long regarded by colonial powers as isolated dots on the map, the large ocean states of the Pacific are grappling with the same economic, cultural and security challenges as the rest of the world. And in line with the Christian tradition of David and Goliath, Pacific peoples are using their prophetic voice to stand tall and say that another world is possible.

About the author

Nic Maclellan

Nic Maclellan is a correspondent for Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and a contributor to Pacnews, Inside Story and other regional media. He was awarded the Walkley Foundation’s Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism in 2020.

More articles by Nic Maclellan

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