Changing times in Oceania?
The recent meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, Oceania’s regional cooperation body, ended harmoniously, helped by the fact that Australia’s new government is taking climate change more seriously. But regional cooperation received a blow when Kiribati withdrew ahead of the meeting, citing bias against countries from the Micronesia region. Meanwhile China is changing regional dynamics, with a recent attempt to secure an economic and security deal, prompting Australia and the USA to step up their engagement. The need for Pacific Island states to take a common and united front, informed by civil society and guided by human rights principles, has never been greater.
The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) presented a picture of harmony at the end of its meeting in Suva, Fiji this July. The upbeat mood was helped by the fact that Australia, with a new government following its May election, played a more cooperative role than at the previous meeting, held before the pandemic in 2019.
But warm smiles couldn’t entirely paper over recent challenges to cooperation across the vast territory covered by Oceania’s intergovernmental network. Some big decisions remain pending.
Kiribati causes a shock
Just before the meeting, the government of Kiribati caused a shock by announcing it was leaving PIF with immediate effect. The backdrop was a simmering row over the Micronesia region’s representation – Pacific Islands are divided into three regions: Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
In 2021 Henry Puna of the Cook Islands narrowly beat Gerald Zackios from the Marshall Islands to become PIF’s secretary-general. Micronesian states – the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau – believed this breached an unofficial principle of regional rotation that meant Zackios should have got the job. Micronesian states have long complained of being neglected by PIF and have pushed for rotation because since PIF was founded in 1971 only one secretary-general has come from the region.
The government of Palau served notice of its withdrawal in February 2021, and other Micronesian states threatened to follow suit. Negotiations led to a compromise being reached this June, which agreed that when Puna stands down in 2024 the next leader will be Micronesian. The deal, formalised in the Suva Agreement endorsed at the July meeting, confirmed the principle of regional rotation, along with creating two deputy-secretary general roles to ensure representation of all three regions. PIF also promised to move some offices to Micronesia, apparently with support from Australia and New Zealand, both of which are keen to keep the network together.
However, the government of Kiribati said it didn’t approve of the agreement and pulled out. This meant it wasn’t represented at the Suva meeting, although the meeting’s chair, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, reported that attempts at dialogue were still being made. Also absent were the leaders of the Cook Islands, due to approaching elections, Nauru, citing pandemic concerns, and the Marshall Islands, caught in an internal legal mess due to a resolution passed to leave PIF last year, which prevented its attendance. This suggested something of a missed opportunity to bring of Oceania’s leaders together after a pandemic hiatus.
The concerns are that if Kiribati stays detached from PIF, it could get closer to China. The government of China is seeking a more active role in the region and the scattered island group of Kiribati – whose extensive waters make it the world’s only country in all four hemispheres – could be a strategic prize.
Oceania was once home to many of the states that recognised and maintained international relations with Taiwan rather than China. But it’s a rapidly dwindling list as China pursues international partnerships, both for its economic and political advantage and as part of its campaign to absorb Taiwan. Of the 13 states that still recognise Taiwan, four – the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu – are in Oceania. Until recently there were six, but in 2019 Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched recognition to China.
The move was controversial in both countries. In Kiribati, the question dominated the 2020 elections, leading to some loss of support for the ruling party. In the Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare caused outrage when he switched recognition a few months after an election when the issue had not been debated. The capital, Honiara, was the site of major protests in 2019 and 2020, which turned violent and targeted businesses in the Chinatown district.
Protests led to a no-confidence vote in December 2021 that Sogavare survived, after which he claimed ‘agents of Taiwan’ had tried to remove him from power. People from Malaita Province, an outlying island group that seeks greater autonomy, participated heavily in protests; Malaita’s leader opposed the recognition of China.
The Solomon Islands’ government has quickly received benefits from its recognition of China. China is funding the renovation of a goldmine and building a stadium for the next South Pacific Games. It has also taken over from Taiwan in providing funding to members of parliament – something that may have helped influence the 2021 confidence vote.
In April the two governments went further, signing a cooperation deal. The text was supposed to be secret but it leaked. The deal says the Solomon Islands government will receive Chinese help with security, while in return Chinese ships will have easier access to the Solomon Islands.
The deal sparked fears that China might be about to establish a naval base on the Solomon Islands. Currently China has only one naval base outside its territory, in Djibouti, but there’s also concern that its cooperation with Cambodia may lead to the development of a naval base there. Expansion into Oceania would mark an escalation of its global role.
Both governments have denied having any such plans. But there are other, immediate worries. Already Chinese security forces are training their Solomon Islands counterparts in weapons use and riot control. Given the violence seen in recent protests, the fear, not least among Malaitan activists, is that the brutal tactics honed in repressing the Hong Kong democracy movement could be imported to the Solomon Islands.
Sogavare is currently trying to extend his term in office by seeking a one-year delay to elections due in 2023, something civil society opposes. If Sogavare succeeds, it’s sure to spark protests, providing an opportunity for the police to flex their new muscles.
A deal on the table
China isn’t stopping with the Solomon Islands. In May, ahead of the PIF meeting, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Ji, undertook a whirlwind round of diplomacy, visiting eight Pacific Island countries in 10 days before meeting 10 foreign ministers in Fiji.
Via another leak, it became apparent what he was pushing: China wanted to sign an economic and security deal with 10 Pacific Island countries, encompassing the creation of a free-trade area and cooperation on disaster resilience and security, including on policing and surveillance. Any security cooperation would spark identical civil society concerns about the policing of protests to those raised in the Solomon Islands.
But if people had doubts, they could hardly put them to Wang during his trip: media access was restricted for most of his visits and journalists were not allowed to question him.
Civil society can sound the alarm on proposals that threaten to roll back rights, such as policing and surveillance cooperation.
If China hoped to bounce Pacific Island states into a quick deal ahead of the PIF meeting, it didn’t get what it wanted. Several governments pushed back. Samoa accused China of trying to hurry a deal through. The governments of Niue and Palau – one of the four still recognising Taiwan – also voiced concerns, while FSM’s President David Panuelo expressed the fear the proposal could help spark a new Cold War. In return, Chinese state-affiliated media accused FSM of being in the USA’s pocket.
No decision was taken at the PIF meeting, and the post-meeting dialogue conventionally held with partners, at which China hoped to press its case, was postponed. It seems clear that Pacific Island leaders want more time and expect to be listened to and heard rather than having a ready-made package thrust upon them. Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama is among those pushing for stronger climate commitments as part of any deal.
Pacific Island countries, many of them low-lying, are frontline states for the devastating impacts of climate change, which they have done the least to cause. The world’s first climate refugees came from the region and multiple islands are at risk of disappearing due to sea-level rise. Any deal that fails to address the climate crisis is out of step with the region’s needs. When China offers security cooperation, it may see security in terms of actions such as surveillance and repressive policing; Pacific Islanders may see security as the survival of their lands and waters.
Australia and the USA step up
China’s engagement with the Pacific has focused attention on a region that rarely makes global headlines. Other powerful states with Oceanic connections – Australia, the USA and perhaps to a lesser extent New Zealand – stand accused of neglecting Pacific Islands. Certainly China’s attempts at securing a deal seem to have galvanised them into renewed action.
US Vice-President Kamala Harris gave an online speech to the meeting, acknowledging that Pacific Islands had not received enough attention and promising new support, including for fishing, and a stronger US diplomatic presence. China evidently took a keen interest in her pledges: two Chinese defence attaches posing as journalists were ejected from the session.
Ahead of China’s visit to Fiji, the Fijian government joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, an initiative launched by US President Joe Biden in May. The economic cooperation deal is opposed by China, helping explain its growing interest in the region. Fiji is the first Pacific Island country to join what is otherwise a network involving the USA, Australia, New Zealand and most of Asia’s major economies.
Australia’s new Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, has also made at least three visits to the region since taking office in May. The Australian government has moved to make it easier for Pacific Island people to work in Australia.
Relations between Australia and many Pacific Island countries deteriorated under the former government, not least because its policies amounted to climate denial. While Australia talked tough on China, its stance on climate change presented a key barrier to developing better relations with its Pacific neighbours. At the previous PIF meeting in 2019, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison pressured leaders to remove from the meeting’s conclusions any references to keeping the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, planning for net zero emissions by 2050 and limiting the use of coal.
Because Australia’s new government – having won power in an election in which climate change was one of the main issues – has committed to stronger policies, tensions were lessened this time round. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was welcomed as a breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor.
The meeting declared a climate emergency – with Australia’s support – and launched PIF’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, committing to urgent climate action, a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy and closer regional integration. Australia joined with other PIF members in endorsing the government of Vanuatu’s case with the International Court of Justice, where it is seeking an opinion on the right of current and future generations to be protected from climate change. Such unanimity was unimaginable under the old Australian government.
Still, Pacific Island leaders are pushing Australia for more climate ambition, since even its new plans aren’t consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Coal and gas projects underway in Australia weren’t discussed at the meeting. But if Australia wants to develop its influence in the region, it will have to walk the talk on climate.
The same goes for the USA. Its hopes of countering China’s influence may depend on its ability to demonstrate its commitment to climate action – something that further raises the stakes for Biden’s so far thwarted attempts to pass a package of climate reforms.
The question of what level of influence China gets to enjoy in the region remains unresolved. A decision may have been delayed but China won’t simply leave the field. It quickly responded to the refusal of foreign ministers to approve its deal by releasing a paper dropping references to cybersecurity and policing cooperation and the creation of a free-trade area, signalling willingness to negotiate.
China will keep seeking a pan-Pacific deal but will also pursue bilateral agreements. On Wang’s quickfire visit it signed a bilateral agreement promising major infrastructure support with Samoa and six agreements with Tonga, where it stands accused of building up Tonga’s indebtedness to Chinese corporations to enable the development of political leverage. In Vanuatu it agreed to build a new runway, and a similar deal is on the cards in Kiribati. It’s believed many more agreements have been signed.
Kiribati may be a particular target for China’s charm offensive now it’s broken away from PIF. China is believed to be interested in exploiting the vast Phoenix Islands Protected Area, where a commercial fishing ban in place since 2015 is due to end. Any suggestion of some kind of Chinese base in that area will provoke the same kind of concerns expressed about China’s Solomon Islands deal.
Clearly, it’s in the interests of Pacific Island nations to capitalise on this rare interest in their region. It makes sense to at least flirt with China to win support from Australia and the USA.
But it’s a potentially dangerous game, and all Pacific Island states need to work together. Urgent efforts should be made to bring Kiribati back into the fold so countries can resist being picked off by powerful states and, as a collective, insist on the strongest possible action on climate change. Heightened levels of interest in the region should reinforce PIF’s role rather than weaken it.
Pacific Island governments should also listen to their people, and ensure they consult with civil society before entering into any new deals. Civil society can sound the alarm on proposals that threaten to roll back rights, such as policing and surveillance cooperation. It’s time for Oceania to be taken seriously as a global region. But that means its civil society must be recognised as having a vital contribution to make to its future.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Kiribati should commit to rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum so the region’s states can adopt common negotiating positions.
Powerful states seeking to make deals with Pacific Island governments should commit to supporting transition to renewable energies and cutting their own emissions.
Pacific Island governments should consult with civil society before signing any new cooperation deals.
Cover photo by Kirsty Needham/REUTERS via Gallo Images