|I wish to thank the Center for Strategic and International Studies for the opportunity to deliver some remarks during the opening of this dialogue. The US Pacific relationship is an issue of import and relevance for the region especially during this time of geopolitical flux and flex.
As the Pacific Islands Forum, we are focused on supporting our 18 Members to collectively address regional challenges and harness our strengths and opportunities, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy and productive lives. We do this in partnership with stakeholders within our region and outside, particularly in recognition of the trans-boundary nature of many of the challenges we face.
The relationship between the Forum and the US is meaningful and enduring. The US has been a formal Dialogue Partner of the Pacific Islands Forum for thirty years, this year. In 2012, the US Secretary of State attended the leaders meeting in Rarotonga, and we hope the importance placed on the relationship continues to see high-level representation and engagement in our region.
The underlying theme of our dialogue over the next two days is focused on strengthening the US Pacific Islands partnership. This morning, I would like to frame my remarks around the need to re-examine the US-Pacific Islands relationship first before we can look at ways to strengthen our partnership. To do this I would like to pose three factors which are influencing the current relationship and potentially determine our future partnership.
Framing – Indo Pacific vis-à-vis Blue Pacific
The first issue I wish to raise is one of framing. Great power competition is back! The post world war two or cold war architecture which has provided security and stability is undergoing fundamental change driven by a range of players. Our region finds itself inextricably at the center of this due to our geography and the strategic value of our Blue Pacific Continent. We see new partners and our traditional partners increasing their engagement and interest with our region.
To position itself accordingly, the US has shifted from its Asia Pacific framing of its strategic environment to an Indo-Pacific frame. Understandably, this reframing from a US perspective is in line with its policy objectives of securing its sea lines of communication with a focus on maritime security and freedom of navigation and as a counterweight to China’s growing influence and power in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. The renaming of the US’s Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command is testament to this.
Other states are subscribing to this new ‘Indo-Pacific’ frame in a variety of ways. Along with the US, they have similar but different approaches. For our region, these similar yet different frames appear both complementary and competing, but what matters to this region is our own collective ambition to define our place. The Blue Pacific cannot and will not become an aside in this new Indo-Pacific frame.
Pacific Islands Forum Members have our own framing of our strategic environment. In 2017, Forum Leaders endorsed the Blue Pacific narrative as the core driver of collective action for advancing the Leaders vision under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. The Blue Pacific narrative recognises our strategic value as custodians of some of the world’s richest biodiversity and marine and terrestrial resources. It emphasises our collective stewardship of the Pacific Ocean to ensure peace, protect the dignity of our way of life and secure the livelihoods and wellbeing of all Pacific Islands communities.
The Blue Pacific narrative is about our Pacific people and emphasizes our long history of creating innovative solutions to our unique problems. Our integrated regional approach to building resilience to the effects of climate change and disaster risks is a world first. Our tuna fishery is at the forefront of sustainable fisheries management. Our region is a world leader in terms of using labour mobility as a driver of development. We have a long history of working together to nurture and protect our people and our environment. We ended driftnet fishing, created the South Pacific nuclear free zone, and as a collective assisted the people of the Solomon Islands restore security and stability through RAMSI. The Blue Pacific narrative is the embodiment of our collective aspirations and how together we can achieve great things for our Pacific people and for our place.
The Blue Pacific narrative underpinned by the vision, values and objectives of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism should be the basis for effective and genuine engagement with our region.
Plainly, we have high expectations for all our partners – old and new. We expect that your interactions and activity in our region will act to enable Pacific Islands Forum Members to individually and collectively maintain and strengthen their strategic autonomy.
Different Approaches (Competition vs Cooperation)
The second issue I would like to highlight is that Pacific Islands Countries and the US have different approaches to this new phase of great power competition.
The US National Security Strategy portrays Pacific Islands Countries as ‘fragile states’, due to our vulnerability. It states that the US will work with Australia and New Zealand to “shore up” these fragile Pacific Islands Countries. This narrative continues to paint the picture of a region that is willing to stand by and allow its future to be shaped and directed by others. I would like to encourage you to move away from this narrative.
Of course, Pacific Islands Countries face challenges. But we are not fragile and we are not failing. Our Blue Pacific narrative has strengthened our resilience and regional solidarity enabling a paradigm shift from being small, vulnerable, fragile states to one of a Blue Pacific continent consisting of large oceanic states. We are determined to collectively chart our own path in the face of current and future geopolitical, economic, social and climatic shifts. We invite our old and new partners to support us.
Forum Leaders value open, genuine, inclusive and enduring relationships both within the Pacific and outside the region as well.
Given the focus on development and the resource constraints faced in varying degrees across the region, a ‘friends to all approach’ has been an accepted modality for engagement and building relationships and partnerships. It allows Pacific Islands Forum Members to access a wide range of development options from a diverse range of partners and actors that are suited to their specific requirements and needs. Our task is to find an appropriate balance between leveraging the competition between partners and ensuring peace and cooperation prevails in our Blue Pacific.
Points of Divergence
The final point I would like to make is that while our “friend to all approach” comes from a place of openness, and prioritises conversation and ongoing dialogue, there are, and will continue to be, instances where we do not agree.
At these times, we will need to work hard to align our differing interests.
I wish to illustrate this using climate change and UNCLOS.
In 2018, Forum Leaders endorsed the Boe Declaration in Nauru. The Boe Declaration aims to achieve stronger and cohesive regional security cooperation and coordination. It is a call to action through the assertion of our collective will and collective voice as peoples of the Pacific. It further recognises that the Pacific is faced with a regional security environment confronted with complex security challenges framed by an expanded concept of security, within a dynamic geopolitical environment. Above all, it recognises and reaffirms that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and calls for greater commitment to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
The 2018 IPCC Special Report on Limiting Global Warming to 1.5°C provides clear scientific evidence that the world is not doing enough to achieve this target. The report further states that “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C”.
Climate change will affect the very existence of some of our Forum Islands Countries.
Despite this grim picture, the US unfortunately withdrew from the Paris Agreement. The Pacific continues to recognise the importance of Global leadership in progressing the Paris Agreement, and in 2018 Leaders of Forum Islands Countries called on the United States to return to the Agreement.
The divergence between the US’s and the Pacific’s strategic interests in relation to climate change at the political level is clear.
Another difference in policy between the US and Pacific Islands is with regards to UNCLOS. Although being instrumental in its development and consistently using UNCLOS to enforce freedom of navigation and challenge certain maritime claims, the US has not ratified UNCLOS due to objections on aspects of the treaty. For example, Article XI, relating to deep seabed resources beyond national jurisdiction.
UNCLOS has been a game changer for Pacific Islands Countries. It has literally transformed small island nations into large oceanic states with vast economic exclusive zones increasing their territory along with sovereign rights to resources in the ocean and the untapped potential on and below the seabed. It is for these reasons that Forum Leaders acknowledge the urgency and importance of securing the region’s maritime boundaries as a key issue for the development and security of the region.
Furthermore, with the world’s attention focused on securing a new legally binding instrument for biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions (BBNJ), Forum Leaders continue to emphasise the critical importance of a strong governance regime in the high seas. Such a regime is necessary to ensure the security and integrity of our Blue Pacific continent.
Both these examples illustrate that for Pacific Islands Forum Members, a successful partnership is not just about effective engagement within the region. It also requires global leadership and action on transboundary challenges – none more important for the Pacific than climate change and sustainable ocean management, use and conservation.
The geopolitical environment which contextualizes the US and Pacific Islands Countries partnership has changed. Our relationship, as I have tried to illustrate this morning, while enduring is complex and is currently being re-shaped against a rapidly changing environment.
Forum Leaders through the Blue Pacific narrative have strongly articulated their desire to collectively navigate through current and emerging challenges as one Blue Continent.
We welcome continued US support towards the realisation of the Pacific Islands Forum’s vision for ‘a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion, and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy and productive lives.’
Achieving our vision will require all partners to bring a nuanced, genuine and contextualised approach to the Pacific. An approach that respects our framing of our place as the Blue Pacific and our strategic ambitions espoused in our Framework for Pacific Regionalism.
This should be the logical starting point for strengthening the US-Pacific Islands partnership.
If you would like more information, please contact:
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Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat
More information on regional priorities for the Blue Pacific can be found at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat website: www.forumsec.org.