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State of Pacific Regionalism - Challenges to Pacific Solidarity

An Opinion-Editorial by Cristelle Pratt, Deputy Secretary General (21 August, 2017)

A paper entitled “State of Pacific Regionalism Report 2017" which provides an overview of some of the key geopolitical trends, issues and opportunities facing the Pacific has been released by the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat.

The report encourages Pacific Islands Forum members to consider issues that can be approached from the perspective and based on the interests as a bloc; and, socio-economic issues which require of us collective action.

There are numerous examples of how - when we are committed to working together as a collective - the region achieves economic, social and national milestones. For example, the recently-concluded Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

The Pacific as a region has indeed proven time and again what it is capable of and what it can achieve - when its people determines to work together for the big picture, such as: the establishment of the Rarotonga Treaty; the region’s efforts on securing SDG14 on Oceans and the recent inaugural global Oceans Conference held in New York in June being just three examples.

It is therefore unsurprising that one of the important themes emerging from the State of Pacific Regionalism Report is the challenges to maintaining our political solidarity on key regional and global priorities.

This seemingly dilution of solidarity can trace its progeny to a region which is becoming increasingly crowded where there has been an influx of donors, civil society organisations and philanthropists, in the midst of new governments.

This increased interest comes with greater opportunities for partnerships and access to much-needed development financing but it also leads to calls to revisit the regional architecture.

The question of whether countries and institutions in the Pacific see the Pacific Islands Forum as the apex of the regional architecture in setting priorities for action and resource allocation is at the heart of the region’s ability to work together and deliver development impact to the peoples of the Pacific.

A trend that is associated with the increase in actors seeking to engage with the region is the current shift towards a multi-polar global order, with the rise of China, the re-assertion of Russia and other emerging powers attesting to global geo-politics shifts. In this context traditional partnerships cannot be assumed.

Some observers argue that the Pacific region is beginning to offer an enabling environment for security threats, as the global geo-political dynamics play out locally, and with non-traditional partners’ influence increasingly demonstrated.

In addition to increased interest in the Pacific from external actors, Forum members’ governments are participating in a wide-range of international and sub-regional organisations and political groupings. This has seen the Pacific exercising greater influence in international negotiations, such as on biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions and climate change.

It is worth noting however that some Pacific countries are members of up to 30 international organisations (excluding regional bodies). While increased participation in different regional and global political groupings provides new opportunities for Pacific countries to influence political processes and have their voices heard, it also poses significant challenges to ensuring a consistent Pacific voice across groupings and relevant political processes.

These challenges to ensuring Pacific solidarity are taking place in a broader context of declining preference for multilateralism, which are evidenced by Brexit, decreases in multilateral trade agreements and the recent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by the United States of America.

Another challenge to ensuring Pacific solidarity is the very limited investment directed to regionalism. A recent analysis of regional governance and financing undertaken by the Forum Secretariat indicated that less than five percent of donor funds in the Pacific is targeted to regionalism.

As many countries in and around the Pacific see a united region as a critical geostrategic concern for ensuring national security – Questions  of “What is to be done?” and “How can we ensure Pacific solidarity on priorities that matter?” needs to be considered.

In the face of global political, economic and ecological uncertainty, Pacific regionalism will need to be resolute in making the most of what it has to ensure the development outcomes it seeks.

It is timely that the theme for this year’s Forum Leaders meeting in Apia Samoa - “The Blue Pacific – Our Sea of Islands – Our Security through Sustainable Development, Management and Conservation” (“The Blue Pacific”) emphasises that ‘what we have’ as a region is our shared Pacific Ocean. The Framework for Pacific Regionalism outlines the political ambition of our leaders to work together on delivering a prioritised regionalism agenda. This remains paramount for the Pacific Islands Forum.

The concept of “The Blue Pacific” can enable us to reinforce our regional political identity through emphasising our shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean. It can enable us to recognise and assert the geostrategic importance of our shared ocean geography, as well as enable us to value our shared ocean resources in new, innovative and empowering ways.

In short, while the Framework for Pacific Regionalism calls on us to deepen regionalism through working together on key political priorities, “The Blue Pacific” is a catalyst in helping strengthen our commitment to these tasks by reinforcing the identity of our political community and providing a strategic context for determining where working together is essential.

Some reasons that have been cited for a seemingly weakening Pacific solidarity include the weakening multilateralism, an increase in actors seeking to engage with and influence the region, and our own widening engagement in political groupings and institutions – and could merely be contemporary issues inevitable in the geo-politics reality of today. 

The State of Pacific Regionalism Report however calls for sincere and open discussion on how to address socio-economic issues of our times, with the fundamental belief in the capacity of the Pacific Islands Forum bloc to act collectively in an effective, result-oriented way, looking within for resources rather than outside.

As Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa and incumbent Chair of the Forum Foreign Ministers so eloquently put “The Blue Pacific is not just about our ocean. The concept of the Blue Pacific is about all Pacific people comprising this ocean of islands we call home, who recognise their needs and potential, who can plan and own their development agenda, and who can act collectively for the good of all, rather than a few.”

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