The Pacific islands region has long emphasised non-traditional security threats and challenges, at both national and regional levels.
As geopolitical competition has intensified in the Pacific, there has been a tendency to portray such competition as a distraction to the region’s real and pressing priorities. This was reflected in the 2023 Pacific Islands Forum Security Outlook Report:
While geo-political competition could draw much needed attention and resources to the Pacific, it could also distract the region and its partners from efforts to address its existing security priorities – addressing climate security, supporting human security and disrupting criminal activity.
However geopolitical competition is much more than a distraction (or an opportunity). In fact, it is shaping the security environment in the Pacific in profound and potentially dangerous ways and deserves a much more central place in the Pacific’s security narrative.
Former Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor recently commented that the region should have paid more attention to the emergence of the Indo-Pacific strategy. The region was focused on developing and articulating the “Blue Pacific” narrative at the same time.
But while the Pacific was asserting the Blue Pacific narrative – and development partners appeared increasingly enthusiastic about this narrative and agenda – other things were happening which the region was perhaps distracted from.
AUKUS for example. This caught the region by surprise and there was widespread disquiet when it was first announced. China was very quick to condemn AUKUS and to fuel the regional disquiet and concern.
But two years later, the criticism from most countries in the region is more muted. It is important to ask why.
Perhaps all the good will generated by the Pacific partners’ apparent endorsement of the Blue Pacific narrative, as well as Boe Declaration on Regional Security, has paid off. This may be keeping the Pacific distracted (if not disengaged) from some of the disturbing trends unfolding.
There are clearly synergies between the Indo Pacific and the Blue Pacific agendas.
The Pacific islands share a common interest with their Western security partners (particularly the United States, New Zealand and Australia) in maritime security and protecting maritime boundaries from such threats as Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and transnational organised crime.
But the lack of debate and consultation with the region about AUKUS highlights the need to reorient the Blue Pacific narrative and security agenda towards a much stronger focus on the implications of geopolitical competition on the region, in particular on the implications of escalating tensions between the United States and China.
A few leaders and commentators have made the connection, on a number of levels.
It has been highlighted, for example, that China and the United States need to work together on climate change. Geopolitical competition is destabilising the multilateral and bilateral cooperation necessary to address this global challenge. It has also been observed that climate change threats will only intensify in light of geo-economic competition, what Terence Wesley-Smith has termed the “race to economic growth at the heart of the US-China competition”.
Prioritising geo-strategic and geo-economic competition over multilateral efforts to mitigate climate change also has significant opportunity costs. Sovereignty and self-determination struggles in the region will likely remain hostage to the geopolitical interests and agendas of metropolitan powers and become entangled with and inflamed by these dynamics.
The Indo Pacific strategy is escalating nuclear and non-nuclear militarisation of the Pacific. Australia is playing a central role in this through AUKUS, but we should also note the militarisation of the region via new bases, new defence treaties, military training, and dual use port access.
The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty should be a regional mechanism for keeping the region out of military contention. But is it serving this purpose and how can it be strengthened?
Geopolitical competition has been a positive influence in the past, providing countries with new opportunities and partnerships. But we are now entering a new and potentially more dangerous phase of great power competition. This is something the region should be preparing for.
The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent calls for a “flexible and responsive” regional security mechanism to be in place, to address traditional and non-traditional security issues. This provides an opportunity for the Pacific to determine how the region will maintain and advance its “strategic autonomy”. Pacific Island states generally do not want to choose sides in the strategic competition between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and China on the other. It is important that there is dialogue in the region on how the “friends to all, enemies to none” posture can be operationalised more broadly, before it is too late.