Dr Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.
I take the question of the challenge to the Pacific to be the challenge posed by strategic competition, and by the dynamic relationship between geopolitics and regional order that has arisen from strategic competition.
Strategic competition has intensified in the Pacific since 2014. As a consequence, we are seeing a degree of tension between external interests and Pacific sovereignty and agency that we haven't really seen since the period of decolonisation in the 1960s, and certainly not since the early 2000s.
The great powers are doggedly pursuing strategies to extend their reach, and are thereby inculcating a sense of insecurity in the leaders of the Pacific region. Many of the Pacific leaders are feeling a deep sense of frustration that the region is being pressured to choose between China and our traditional partners, at the expense both of development imperatives and of adequate responses to calls from the Pacific for climate action. Their approaches to managing the demands of this strategic competition at both the national and regional levels are increasingly being tested; in essence, individual Pacific States and the region as a whole are increasingly being faced with a strategic choice not of their making.
It is the tension between these geopolitical pressures and and the maintenance of Pacific regionalism on which I want to focus. The Pacific Islands Forum Inaugural Security Outlook Report, which was released earlier this year, describes an increasingly contested region — with the United States and its allies seeking to maintain “the regional dominance they have held since the colonial era”, and China seeking to advance its own strategic agenda.
The contemporary Pacific regional order is a confluence of (and increasingly a contest between) three dynamics: (1) Pacific priorities driven by the Blue Pacific narrative; (2) the interests and agendas of the former and ongoing colonial powers in the region (as well as new development partners, all of whom have developed strategies since 2017 to frame their increasing engagement with China in the Pacific); and also, of course, (3) the agenda of China itself, which is not a new partner in the region by any stretch of the imagination, but which has substantially increased its engagement since 2014 — culminating, in 2022, in a Chinese proposal for a new regional architecture.
The first of these three agendas — the Blue Pacific regional order driven by the Pacific Islands Forum — is articulated in the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, first advanced in 2017 and adopted in 2022. This emphasises the agency, the strategic autonomy, and the activism of Pacific countries, as well as the importance of the region's own security architecture in the changing world order. The Blue Pacific Regional Order builds on the success of collective action, including the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga, which created the South Pacific Nuclear-free Zone, and more recent collective success in the spheres of international climate, diplomacy, and oceans-governance.
As we saw very recently at the UN, this attempt at a new regional order has generated what is known as the New Pacific Diplomacy, which reflects the fundamental shift that has occurred since about 2009 in the way that Pacific States engage in regional and international affairs. This shift has been, at least in part, driven by frustration with Western dominance of the regional institutions that have formed the established regional order, and by the desire to exercise more autonomy and influence through a new regional order. These discontents have fuelled a series of regional dynamics, including those which caused the fracturing of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021 and made it imperative to restore the coherence of the Forum by adopting the Blue Pacific agenda (which develops the agenda originally set out in the Forum’s Boe Declaration on Regional Security of 2018).
The Blue Pacific narrative strategically seeks (with some success so far) to influence the behaviour of the region's partners by shaping their perceptions and guiding their policy choices. Partner countries have responded with enthusiasm to the Blue Pacific narrative, particularly welcoming the legitimacy it gives to their engagement. They have begun to align their development priorities with the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific; they have also begun to appropriate some of the narrative itself by adopting the rhetoric of ‘Forum centrality’. As the tempo of partner engagement has increased, Wellington and Canberra have sought to safeguard and cultivate their own interests, including their own centrality and credibility within the new regional order, by leveraging their regional influence to promote the Blue Pacific narrative and the concept of ‘Forum centrality’. Even when the Blue Pacific narrative and the concept of ‘Forum centrality’ have been circumvented or undermined by particular Pacific Island Forum member states, New Zealand and Australia have sought to shape partner engagement in the region to align with the Blue Pacific agenda (albeit not without taking some risks, and not always successfully).
The third dynamic is the alternative regional order advanced by China in 2022 at the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting. China proposed a Pacific Islands ‘common development vision’, with the aim of adopting a draft communique at the Foreign Ministers Meeting. The ‘common development vision’ sought to reshape the regional order in the Pacific Islands through the advancement in close alignment of ambitious security and economic initiatives. It proposed substantial trade and investment initiatives, including a new China-Pacific Islands free trade area aligned both with the Belt and Road Initiative and with the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific; and it proposed numerous security sector initiatives, elevating law enforcement cooperation to ministerial level, and covering cyber security, smart customs, data networks, and so forth.
Despite the rejection of the ‘common development vision’ by Pacific leaders, the initiative clearly indicated Chinese ambitions to build an alternative regional architecture in the Pacific. And these ambitions are being realised bilaterally in the context of security cooperation, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. China's announcement for the first time that it is a direct stakeholder in the security of the Pacific has been followed by the establishment of new security and policing arrangements, most notably with Solomon Islands (including the security deal of 2022), and also through the building of new networks and security infrastructure.
Now, of course, a number of these initiatives are welcomed by China’s specific partners in the region. But there are concerns that China' new regional security architecture could potentially cut across and undermine the existing Pacific regional security architecture, including existing crisis management mechanisms, such as the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2000 Biketawa Declaration, which provided the mandate for the Australian intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003. It is this potential for the undermining of the existing regional security architecture that gives rise to the tension between geopolitical strategic competition and the region’s own security agenda. China's emergence as a security partner for the Solomon Islands alongside Australia, which has long been the preferred security partner of choice, has revealed the risks of strategic competition intersecting with local security dynamics.
We see the same issues arising in the space of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The Pacific countries have been calling, for a very long time, for cooperation, if not collaboration, in this field. But, as China seeks a role as a humanitarian responder and key stakeholder in disaster response in the Pacific, as witnessed in response to the Tongan eruption and the tsunami in 2022, we can see this Chinese response operating outside the existing regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief architecture.
More work obviously needs to be done to ensure that we do not have two parallel architectures in the Pacific. Pacific countries have responded to the competing visions of the regional order by consistently stating that they prefer a regional order that is characterized neither by US nor by Chinese hegemony. There are certainly contrasts between the stances of those Pacific Forum member states which are part of the non-aligned movement and those Pacific countries closely aligned with the United States. However, as a result of strategic competition in the Pacific, a broad consensus has emerged amongst Pacific States. It is driven by two demands: first, that partners should cooperate rather than compete; and second, that Pacific interests and priorities should shape and drive the regional security agenda. And it is underpinned by a recognition that strategic competition is directly impacting regional politics and security — as specifically stated in the 2050 strategy.This includes a recognition that the strategic autonomy of Pacific States advanced in the Blue Pacific narrative is at risk, and growing concerns that, despite partner support (both rhetorical and material) for peace and security in the region, competition is leading to militarization — suggesting that foreign policy stances such as ‘friends to all and enemies to none’ are no longer sufficient for managing strategic competition, and that new policies are required to advance a collective security treaty in order to manage asymmetrical relations and balance external powers.
This has led to Pacific States hedging between traditional development partners and China. It has also led to Pacific States making strategic choices, at times under pressure. This complex interaction between national interest and the regional dynamic has frequently been poorly understood in the last few years.
To conclude, the current Pacific regional order is one increasingly of competition and coercion at a time when the Pacific region is still in the process of state and nation building. The ability of the Pacific to navigate and manage such strategic competition in the future is uncertain. The face of the Pacific regional order will look very different over the next decade. As it evolves, the leaders of the post-independence era with strong ties to the region's traditional partners will be replaced by the next generation of leaders who may not share those same ties.
Regionalism itself will evolve as non-state actors, local norms and informal practices continue to shape the Pacific. The role that the Pacific Islands Forum will play in the revolving regional order is not by any means a given — as development partners with competing agendas seek to increase their engagement with the Pacific, and to position themselves as preferred partners integrated into the regional order. Greater effort must be taken to ensure that geopolitics does not exacerbate local security dynamics, and that engagement is constructive rather than disruptive. But it is at least arguable that, by building on existing declarations in extant strategic mechanisms and enshrining collective security principles, the new generation of leaders will be able to strengthen regionalism, in ways that are beneficial for the Pacific nations.