The focus of the Pacific Islands Forum and its Secretariat is securing the future 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 in which the Pacific is given a choice between a “China alternative” and our traditional partners.
Unfortunately, this framing remains the dominant narrative in the public debate about our region today.
I reject the terms of the dilemma in which the Pacific is given a choice between a ‘China alternative’ and our traditional partners.
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. 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.
In 2017, Forum leaders reinvigorated their commitment to this task through their endorsement of the Blue Pacific narrative as the core driver of collective action for advancing the leaders vision under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism.
Last year, the theme for the Forum meeting in Nauru called for a stronger Pacific and the need to more assertively exercise our will in determining the Pacific we want. Through this theme, the Forum is seeking opportunities to build on the Blue Pacific narrative and reinvigorate political ownership of our regional development aspirations.
“Friends to all”
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 the Blue Pacific. 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 makes 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 China and its increasing interest in the region as providing an opportunity to rectify this.
To be sure, we need not only think of these opportunities in relation to China specifically but also the broader range of opportunities emerging in the context of a rising China. China’s presence has meant that other actors, new and old, are resetting their priorities and stepping up engagement in the Pacific.
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. Within this context perhaps the key challenge facing the Blue Pacific is our ability to think through these opportunities as a collective. 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 the wellbeing of the Blue Pacific.
A regional approach to “the China alternative”
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. Last year leaders called for a review of the meetings and processes of the Forum so as to enable more focused and strategic engagement with all dialogue partners.
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 part of such discussions, it is appropriate to consider the merits of establishing a Forum-China dialogue, perhaps in a similar manner to the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting 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. While there are diplomatic issues that must be acknowledged, we must not overlook the opportunities present for advancing the collective priorities of the Blue Pacific. This will require the involvement of all Forum members and a greater say in setting the agenda accordingly.
Infrastructure remains a crucial requirement for ensuring resilience in the Pacific. Considering the opportunities for collective engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) merit careful analysis and discussion, particularly given that nine Forum member countries have already signed bilateral memoranda of understanding to cooperate with China on the BRI.
Indeed, 2019 presents us with an important opportunity with Chile hosting Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Exploring opportunities for 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. It could also deliver much-needed infrastructure and technology for building Blue Pacific connectivity and resilience. The 2019 APEC meeting could provide the catalyst for dialogue on such opportunities.
To conclude, the Blue Pacific provides the strategic lens through which any conversation over “the China alternative” 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.
This is an abridged version of the keynote address given at a regional symposium hosted by the Faculty of Law, at the University of the South Pacific, Port Vila, on 8 February. A full version is available here.