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Geopolitics, but what of other Pacific players?

Politics is a missing element of a new Lowy Institute assessment.

Pacific governments want more urgent action on climate change – that is clearly not happening fast enough (Getty Images)
Pacific governments want more urgent action on climate change – that is clearly not happening fast enough (Getty Images)

A new Lowy Institute policy brief, Geopolitics in the Pacific Islands: Playing for advantage, by Meg Keen and Alan Tidwell argues for better coordination between Australia, the United States and other “traditional” donors, as they seek to assist Pacific Island nations and constrain China’s influence in the region.

There’s plenty of interesting material in the report, but what’s missing is just as interesting.

This study is targeted at policymakers in Canberra and Washington. Granted, Australia is the major aid, trade and military power in the Pacific Islands, and the United States has the largest economy and military forces in the world. But a central weakness of the report is that it fails to discuss many other significant geopolitical players in the region.

Obviously, a short paper can’t cover the full range of actors. But despite a focus on “traditional partners”, there is not one mention of the European Union. The EU has significant interests in the region, shown through development assistance programs, the Green-Blue Alliance for the Pacific, the OACPS Samoa Agreement, and the OCT/PTOM network. Indeed, the very week the policy brief was released, the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum was addressed by the Fiji Prime Minister and Tonga’s Foreign Minister.

Keen and Tidwell also make recommendations to improve the operations and coordination of the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), initiated by the Biden administration with the promise to be “an inclusive, informal mechanism to support Pacific priorities more effectively and efficiently”. The authors acknowledge that the PBP was set up without formal consultation with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, and was criticised by island leaders and regional commentators for undercutting regional agendas and institutions. But Keen and Tidwell fail to mention that the founding membership of PBP in 2022 excluded not only China, but also France and the European Union. Germany, Canada and South Korea are now involved. The EU and France, however, remain as observers rather than full members.

Other players are also missing from Keen and Tidwell’s assessment: no mention of India, for example, even though sections of the Australian security bureaucracy want to revitalise the trilateral India-France-Australia strategic partnership; nor Indonesia, which has its own strategic priority in constraining self-determination for West Papua.

It’s not practical to analyse the way Beijing is winning friends in the Pacific without talking about US and French colonialism as a core component of “the rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific.

These players intervene in sub-regional organisations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Polynesian Leaders’ Group or Micronesian Presidents’ Summit, which are not even mentioned. Yet manoeuvring at sub-regional level is a growing trend when dialogue partners can’t get their way in the Pacific Islands Forum.

As a journalist reporting on regional politics, I read this policy brief and its call for better donor coordination and support for island priorities, thinking “What’s new?”. Previous regional initiatives, such as the Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Integration, have come and gone, foundering on the rocks and shoals of Pacific realities. But reviews of the 2005 plan noted that local priorities, including decolonisation and a nuclear-free Pacific, are sidelined in such technocratic processes. Reverend James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, captured the problem well: “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.”

In other words, it’s not practical to analyse the way Beijing is winning friends in the Pacific without talking about US and French colonialism as a core component of “the rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific. There’s also a need to analyse how a strengthened PBP network will tackle Jakarta and Port Moresby on self-determination and statehood for West Papua or Bougainville.

Other political considerations are also missing. Keen and Tidwell diplomatically note that “securing resources and supportive institutional arrangements has been slow” in the United States – a roundabout way of discussing the dysfunction of the US Congress. US strategic interests are being damaged by the current refusal of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives to fund Biden administration pledges on climate finance and the three renewed Compacts of Free Association for the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau. But Keen and Tidwell go no further on what an election year in the United States might bring, in terms of shifting US priorities in the region. Politics will be key for geopolitics.

Similarly with respect to Australia. The Albanese government is competing with Türkiye to host global climate negotiations known as COP31 in 2026. While supportive of the bid, Pacific governments and communities want more urgent action from Canberra on climate change. However, Australia’s Special Envoy for the Pacific Ewen McDonald told Islands Business last month: “I know people want us to go fast, but we are going as fast as we can.” That’s clearly not fast enough.

For Canberra and Washington to improve their standing in the Pacific, they have to do more than listen and coordinate. They must acknowledge the reality that Pacific Island nations are reaching far beyond so-called “traditional” partners. Talk of partnership is no longer enough in this rapidly changing world, and Anglosphere members must change their policies – on climate, trade, decolonisation and more – to deal with this 21st century reality.

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