GRIFFITH ASIA LECTURE 2019
Delivered by the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum
Dame Meg Taylor
Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia
11 November 2019
Good evening. It is an honour to have been invited to deliver this 2019 Griffith Asia Lecture. First and foremost, allow me to acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
We live in unprecedented times of profound and rapid change; and change is occurring at an unprecedented pace. While the complexity and scale of this change often tests our abilities to respond, nonetheless the actions, partnerships and alliances we commit to today will define the course of our development and achievements for the next few decades. So this evening, I have chosen to frame this lecture around the geopolitics – particularly, focusing on: (i) climate change; (ii) economy and (iii) security, including that of our maritime boundaries. I will then conclude with a few pointers on immediate next steps for the Pacific Islands Forum collective.
Overview of the Pacific Islands Forum – Who are we?
Before I elaborate further on this lecture, and for the benefit of those who may not be familiar, allow me to speak briefly to the Pacific Islands Forum and its architecture.
Founded in 1971, today the Pacific Islands Forum grouping comprises 18 Member countries – 16 self-governing states and 2 territories. The Leaders of the 18 countries constitute the Pacific Islands Forum and meet on an annual basis – the most recent meeting being the 50th Pacific Islands Forum Meeting in Tuvalu. Whilst the Leaders meeting sits at the pinnacle of the regional architecture, I also recognise the Forum Ministerial Meetings which take carriage of operationalising the Leaders’ decisions – primarily, these are the Forum Economic Ministers and Forum Foreign Ministers Meetings.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Forum Leaders’ vision is for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy and productive lives. The Pacific Islands Forum works to achieve this through the Framework for Pacific Regionalism by fostering cooperation between governments, ensuring inclusive policy dialogue mechanisms and by representing the priorities and interests of its members internationally.
Since 2017, the Pacific Islands Forum has galvanised its representation under the blue pacific identity. The Blue Pacific represents our recognition that as a region, we are large, connected and strategically important. It speaks to our collective potential and our shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean. It underlies our ownership of our ocean space – Pacific people taking control of our domain – critical to managing our ocean resources, biodiversity, ecosystems and data, as well as for fighting the impacts of climate change. It is through this narrative that Leaders of the region see opportunities to not only secure the future of the Pacific, but also, as Epeli Hau’ofa describes it, to realise a new era of autonomy following the achievement of political independence.
History has shown that the Pacific Islands Forum has been at its best in moments of challenge – when our solidarity and resolve have been both necessary and tested. It was during these challenging moments that our Leaders sat around the table as sovereign nations and collectively found a way forward to deliver solutions in the best interest and wellbeing of our people.
What has this regional solidarity and resolve looked like? Three prime examples come to mind. The Rarotonga Treaty which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Pacific and was adopted by Leaders at their meeting in August, 1985 in the Cook Islands. The Biketawa Declaration, adopted by Leaders in the year 2000, provided the framework for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, otherwise known as RAMSI. And in 2015, the Pacific’s instrumental role in concluding what was perhaps the toughest global negotiation ever – the Paris Agreement. These milestones are not insignificant and reflect the political strength of the collective.
As I have suggested earlier, we find ourselves at another watershed moment in our collective history where we will be defined, remembered and judged on the action we take together as a regional grouping. However, the stakes are perhaps higher now than they have ever been before. In the current context, defined by a global climate crisis, the future for many countries of the Pacific is not guaranteed. Indeed, for many Pacific Island Countries questions about the future of our region are existential ones.
Despite the many challenges within our region Forum Leaders maintain collective recognition of the long-term and strategic potential for establishing an instrumental political bloc and a viable Blue Pacific Continent. It is against this backdrop that Forum Leaders endorsed the development of a 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent at their meeting in Tuvalu.
However, we are not naive to the fact that securing our future, on our terms and through our will, presents enormous challenges. We know there is much work to do to achieve this but the Pacific Islands Forum understands its agency in the strategic political arena that is supported by a regional architecture and operates as a regional diplomatic bloc.
Geopolitical and Geostrategic Issues
To quote the Prime Minister of Samoa, the Honourable Tuilaepa Malielegaoi “the Blue Pacific identity that we have embraced will ensure that our smallness will have an expanded outreach, and our collective voice will soar above the roar of the angry tides. The recognition of our “earth without borders” resonates with the need for a global outlook, international cooperation and solidarity, and a shared strategy, to address the challenges we face.” We must be unwavering in the face of our challenges, most especially during this sensitive time of geopolitical positioning across the world.
We see claims that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are a single strategic space. We see opposing ideals and perspectives of our space – for instance, the US Secretary of State Mr Mike Pompeo earlier this year claimed: “The United States and Australia are neighbors, united rather than divided by the vast emptiness of Pacific waters”. A comment that stands in stark contrast to histories of Pacific people and the Blue Pacific
Amongst all competing claims, the broader question being debated is, whether multilateralism, in this age of bilateralism, can still be relevant? I would argue that, without it, the strength of small economies will be of nought. Collectivism is at the core of our political strength – a measure that recognises our culture and community.
This diagrammatic interpretation by James Cox, surmises quite simply the heightened geopolitical engagement and competition in our region. We continue to see a growing number of new foreign policy commitments to our island region by a multitude of geopolitical players. Whilst these new initiatives and instruments may be beneficial to our Forum Members, it is critical that, at a regional level, we carefully consider these interventions to ensure that they actually enhance and contribute to strengthening the existing regional architecture and rather than establishing parallel institutions and processes. We must work together to ensure that regional solidarity is not undermined and our ability to collectively address the key priorities for the Blue Pacific is not hampered.
An equally critical challenge is sustainable and cost-effective infrastructure development in the face of extreme climatic vulnerabilities. Our long-term economic performance requires investment in development. It requires investment that supports quality infrastructure to mobilise and connect Pacific people. However, coupled with the current debt capacity of our island economies, the critical balance now lingers between three key factors: required investment in infrastructure, additional debt creation and the minimisation of probable debt distress.
At a bilateral level, it is encouraging to see Pacific Island Countries leveraging the increased engagement from partners to help drive their national development ambitions. It is no secret that the economic prospects for the Pacific economies rely significantly on the outlook of our major trading partner economies.
Major trading partners for the Forum grouping include: China, the European Union, Japan, and the U.S. Together these countries represent 45 percent of the 2019 global GDP – highlighting the magnitude of our partnering trading market.
The sum the Forum’s share of the global economy stands at just over 1.3 percent of 2019 GDP levels. However, collectively, our regional strength coupled with our vast oceanic resources can be catalytic for our advancement. Allow me to take a moment to elaborate this point with the example of fisheries.
The Pacific is home to one of the last remaining sustainable tuna resource in the world. The importance of the tuna industry and its interconnectedness with the global community cannot be over-emphasised. Ultimately, the global tuna trade is impacted by market access, access standards and the behaviour of consumers. Together, thses increasingly influence the way the Industry deals with sustainability and social accountability issues of our fishery.
The Parties to the Nauru Agreement was born out of a group of countries who shared a vision to assert greater control of their fisheries so that they could receive a bigger and fairer share of their resources. Established in 2010, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement has become one of the most innovative and effective regional organisations in the world – transforming the value of the economic returns of the tuna fishery from US$60 million to US$500 million in just under a decade.
This burgeoning resource market, coupled with the strengthened maritime surveillance capabilities of the Forum Fisheries Agency, and strengthening management measures will position and secure the Pacific’s fishing industry for further diversified success in the future.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will now turn to Security – a key element of geostrategic competition.
We continue to observe a multitude of security measures and initiatives introduced in the region, including the expansion of the naval bases at Lombrum on Manus Island and in northern Australia. Reportedly, there is also a proposal for a naval base at Stirling Island in Western Solomon Islands. Perhaps, an apt observation is that of Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister the Honourable Ralph Regenvanu who has questioned this “increasing militarisation of the Pacific.”
For the Forum, more specifically, the security priorities of our region are defined through the Boe Declaration – agreed to by Leaders at their meeting in Nauru in 2018. The fundamental basis of the Boe Declaration is an expanded concept of security that includes human security, economic security and environmental security. Importantly, it is through the Boe Declaration that Leaders’ reaffirmed climate change as the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and their commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
Independent of the Boe, I recognise and acknowledge the country-led initiatives by Australia, which contribute to strengthening the security capabilities of Pacific Islands Governments. I am encouraged that key initiatives, such as the Pacific Fusion Center have now transitioned into the existing regional architecture, demonstrating the Government’s recognition that the initiative be region-led and owned – An example of the successful alignment of a regional priority with an initiative that furthers the aim of Australia’s national foreign policy for stronger security integration across the region.
Ladies and gentlemen, let us turn to the region’s greatest security threat – climate change. In reaffirming climate change as the single greatest threat facing the Blue Pacific, Forum Leaders declared, this past August, a climate change crisis facing Pacific Island nations. Leaders agreed that climate change action is a key priority for the development of a 2050 strategy; and issued the Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Action Now.
Ladies and gentlemen, the global climate crisis is already destroying the integrity and wellbeing of our ocean which is so fundamental to our future viability as Pacific peoples. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees provides clear evidence of the scale of the threat posed to our region by global temperature rise. Further, the most recent IPCC Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere provides the clearest scientific evidence yet of the destructive impacts the climate crisis will have on the health and integrity of our ocean and its resources.
Unfortunately, this is a shared future we all face because of a small minority of countries unwilling to step up their political commitments and take tangible, genuine and ambitious action under the Paris Agreement to reduce global warming and prevent a climate catastrophe.
The science is clear: we must reduce global CO2 emissions by about 45% by 2030 and achieve global net-zero emissions around 2050 if we are to keep global temperature risk down to 1.5 degrees. Forum Island Countries have set ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions – despite the fact that they account for just 0.03 percent of emissions.
Ambitious action is required from all parties to the Climate Convention. Ambitious action that will require unprecedented transitions in energy, land, urban, infrastructure and industrial systems.
It is perhaps appropriate that as we approach the 50th Anniversary of the Pacific Island Forum, we embark on the development of a 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. It is an opportunity to ask ‘what might we do now anyway to help avoid or prepare for these security risks posed by climate change?
Perhaps the most obvious, but nonetheless urgent, action required for realising the Blue Pacific Continent is securing our maritime boundaries. This is currently a priority for Forum Leaders that is becoming more urgent due to the impacts of sea level rise. There is currently no international legal provisions to protect the jurisdiction of Pacific Island Countries and Territories from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise. However, this is an area that we are now pursuing through a petition to the International Law Commission.
Pacific governments are pushing the bounds of international law. In 2018 Pacific Leaders of both the Polynesia Leaders Group and the Parties to the Nauru Agreement declared that their maritime boundaries will remain in perpetuity and will not be compromised by climate change.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands has unilaterally declared, by Ministerial Order, the geographical coordinates of the limits of the maritime zones, regardless of sea level rise. Perhaps making a similar declaration at the regional level is the first step towards securing our ocean continent in the face of climate change.
Another concrete option is to invest in small scale resilient development at the community level. This is the purpose of the Pacific Resilience Facility endorsed by Forum Leaders and Economic Ministers. The Facility aims to facilitate Government’s financing support of community level resilience projects that will prepare them for climate-induced disasters and natural disasters.
Finally, perhaps the simplest action we can do now is to engage the people of the Pacific, particularly our young people, in discussions about our future. Indeed, as Leaders stated through their endorsement of the Blue Pacific, it is about all Pacific peoples comprising our ocean of islands, who recognise their needs and potential, who plan and own their development agenda, and who can act collectively for the good of all, rather than a few. These discussions will be sensitive ones, as they are likely to involve questions about the relocation of people, communities and even cities. They will touch on issues of loss and sacrifice as we weigh up the risks of a changing climate in the context of our existing vulnerabilities and dependencies.
Ladies and gentlemen, as we walk forward as one Ocean Continent, I will reiterate and continue to reiterate that any engagement with the Pacific must take note and respect these circumstances as this is how we have managed to remain a stable and secure region. After all the momentum of the Blue Pacific reminds and inspires ‘us all’ to value the strategic potential of the region, and to act together from a position of strength.
I thank you.