Features | Diplomacy | Oceania

The Pacific Islands Forum at 50

The evolving geopolitics in the South Pacific were on full display at the 50th PIF.

By Balaji Chandramohan for
The Pacific Islands Forum at 50

National flags for the Pacific Islands Forum are on display on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, Sept. 3, 2018.

Credit: Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo via AP

The 50th Pacific Islands Forum held in Tuvalu was an important milestone in the history of the Pacific Islands and will have an impact on the future of the South Pacific’s complex geopolitics – and thereby on the wider Indo-Pacific region.

The future of the Pacific Islands was highlighted by the participation of leaders and representatives from the regional organization’s 18 member countries.

The complexity of the geopolitics starts from the meeting itself as the forum date was brought forward because of a clash with national elections to be held shortly in Tuvalu.

South Pacific geopolitics is complex and multilayered. Despite benefiting from the third wave of democracy in the 1960s and 1970s the South Pacific contains a mix of militaries, ranging from fully professional, large expeditionary forces to small “niche” peace-keeping contingents and internally-oriented praetorian militaries that directly involve themselves in governance.

There are geopolitical differences between the Melanesian (in the mid-southwest Pacific Rim), Micronesian (on the lower northwestern Pacific Rim), and Polynesian (comprised by a geographic triangle extending from Hawai’i in the north to Easter Island in the southeast and New Zealand in the southwest Pacific) blocs.

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It is also significant, then, that this year’s Pacific Islands Forum was held in a Polynesian country. Observers are expecting reconciliation between the Melanesian and Polynesian countries, which have been vying to establish their own importance in the South Pacific.

To start with, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama attended the PIF for the first time after a gap of 10 years thereby signalling the renewed importance of the Forum in Fiji’s foreign policy and the delicate relations that Fiji has with both Melanesian and Polynesian countries in the Pacific Islands.

Fiji has Polynesian connections, with the Lau group and Rotuman islands having Polynesian populations. But after Fiji was expelled from the Pacific Islands Forum due to Bainimarama’s reluctance to hold election following his coup, China encouraged it to be an active participant in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Beijing even provided funds for the establishment of the MSG secretariat in Suva.

More recently, China has extended the scope of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Pacific Islands, with Fiji being the first country to welcome such initiative. Benefiting from such economic relations, Bainimarama has posited himself as Fiji’s Lee Kuan Yew. Like the late Singaporean leader, he wishes to boost his Pacific Island nation’s economic power, possibly by attracting a foreign workforce and investment.

Meanwhile, India, China’s Asian geopolitical competitor, has also given considerable funds to the Pacific Islands Forum. The government of India announced grant assistance of $1.9mn to the government of Tuvalu for construction of Tuvalu Convention Center being built in Funafuti to host the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit meeting.

India also tries to balance its approach to the Melanesian and Polynesian countries in the Pacific Islands. It’s expected that India will soon have diplomatic representatives in both Samoa and Tonga (which are currently served from Wellington and Suva, respectively) thereby increasing its influence in Polynesian, Micronesian, and Melanesian countries.

India may also appoint a defense attaché to be based in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. That officer could coordinate with India’s diplomatic representatives in the Pacific Island nations and with Australia and New Zealand.

On the other hand, India might join with Australia and New Zealand in replicating the “Fish Hook” network in the South Pacific. Australia and New Zealand are contemplating their own Polynesian Cable Network or a Manatua regional submarine telecommunications fiber optic cable.

India’s desire to enhance its influence in the Pacific Islands Forum could be a bid to win support for India’s formal membership for the United Nations Security Council. It has long been a goal of New Delhi to win a permanent seat in the UNSC, which would influence its relations with other countries like China and Pakistan.

In exchange, the Pacific Islands would gain an ally on the UNSC. Many of the regional governments are disappointed that the Western powers have not helped to address existential issues such as climate change in the United Nations. It’s no coincidence that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has styled himself as a leader who will raise issues of importance to Pacific Island countries at the highest table, such as at the United Nations.

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Another important outcome of the Pacific Islands Forum was the way the island countries were attracted to the leadership of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over that of Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

New Zealand’s charismatic leader continues to advocate for and understand the importance of the South Pacific in New Zealand’s geopolitical thinking. In fact, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is an old hand when it comes to dealing with Wellington’s complex interests and balancing in the Pacific Islands.

Ardern will seek to further extend New Zealand’s soft power in the South Pacific as she may face a tough election next year. Politically, votes from the Pacific Islanders community will be crucial, especially in her own constituency of Auckland.

It’s expected that New Zealand will push for the Biketawa Declaration 2.0. The original security statement was agreed to by PIF leaders in 2000, after a coup in Fiji and ethnic tensions in the Solomon Islands. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands was enabled under the Biketawa Declaration. Under the Declaration, Forum countries could form such a mission and send it into a member country upon the request of the affected nation.

New Zealand’s then-Labor Prime Minister Helen Clark had a major role to play in that. It’s expected that Jacinda Ardern will follow suit and involve New Zealand to be a part of Biketawa Declaration 2.0. The Biketawa Declaration 2.0 will work in tandem with the regional security force Legion, comprising the Melanesian countries.

On the other hand, Australia continues to fumble its relations with the Pacific Islands. With the Pacific Islands continuing to be attracted to Chinese soft power, questions linger as to Australia’s commitment to the region.

There were already serious concerns within the region about Prime Minister Morrison’s lack of commitment to address climate change. Then at the PIF, Fiji’s Bainimarama openly accused Morrison of being “very insulting and condescending” toward the Pacific Island leaders at the summit.

“After yesterday’s meeting I gathered [Morrison] was here only to make sure that the Australian policies were upheld by the Pacific island nations,” Bainimarama told The Guardian. “I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine; apparently not.”

Another important issue during the Pacific Islands Forum was the fate of West Papua, which is controlled by Indonesia, but has been agitating for independence for decades. Indonesia, which is not part of the Pacific Islands Forum but attends the meeting as a “dialogue partner,” is not happy with the West Papuan issue getting increased attention.

Despite Jakarta’s increased importance to the Pacific, exemplified by the recent Expo held in Auckland, it has obstacles in the region. The most visible challenge is concern from Pacific countries surrounding Indonesia’s treatment of the situation in West Papua.

At present, Indonesia is a part of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which is composed of the four Melanesian states of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia. In June 2015, Indonesia was recognized as an associate member.

Vanuatu, a vocal supporter of West Papuan self-determination, was invited to the recently concluded Pacific Expo, but did not send a delegation to the meeting held in Auckland involving Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. Instead Vanuatu sent its resident high commissioner.

Further, Vanuatu will stay engaged with the Melanesian Spearhead Group and may coax it to grant associate membership status to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, on par with Indonesia. The 2020 PIF meeting will be held in Vanuatu, raising expectations that the West Papua issue will be a substantial part of the agenda. Independence-minded leaders from Indonesia’s Papuan provinces could form part of an official delegation at next year’s Pacific Islands Forum.

While other Pacific leaders have not been as vocal on the subject as Vanuatu, they have consistently expressed concerns on the issue through the Pacific Islands Forum.

On the other hand, if Australia and New Zealand are willing to ignore the West Papuan issue because of Indonesia’s active economic cooperation it may have positive diplomatic outcomes among the three countries particularly on the security front.

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In conclusion, the Pacific Islands Forum’s 50th anniversary provided a full display of the complexity of geopolitics in the Pacific Islands and the South Pacific. Apart from the Melanesian and Polynesian countries competing for the regional influence, the PIF saw the continued relevance of the West Papua issue. Australia and New Zealand took different approaches to some of the major issues facing the island nations.

And, of course, India and China also reaffirmed and so extended their influence in the South Pacific in an effort to have a significant impact on the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Balaji Chandramohan is a Visiting Fellow with Future Directions International.