The 52nd Pacific Islands Forum summit takes place in the Cook Islands this week, starting tomorrow. New Zealand is sending National MP Gerry Brownlee, and Carmel Sepuloni, the outgoing deputy prime minister.
Developments during the week-long summit will be watched closely by the Forum’s 18 member states, as well as countries outside the Pacific. International attention on the region continues to grow, with the US and China particularly invested in securing influence among Pacific nations. At the same time, Forum members are divided on a number of significant issues — threatening regional unity and the forum’s Blue Pacific 2050 strategy.
In this piece, Marco de Jong, who’s in Rarotonga for the summit, breaks down what’s at stake, and New Zealand’s own role in the region. Marco is the co-director of Te Kuaka, an organisation promoting a progressive role for Aotearoa in the world. Here he is talking to Teuila Fuatai.
The heavy rain that caused flooding in parts of New Zealand’s North Island last week came from the remnants of Cyclone Lola. Lola had already hit Vanuatu, causing widespread damage to Pentecost and Ambrym islands. In February, Cyclone Gabrielle caused severe damage in Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, and other areas along the North Island’s east coast. The same cyclone resulted in damage on Australia’s Norfolk Island and in Vanuatu.
What affects one part of our region will inevitably be felt in another. That’s part of life in the Pacific. And yet, as Vanuatu deals with the aftermath of Cyclone Lola, New Zealand is offering only a fraction of the assistance it has in previous years.
Our only cargo ship is out of action until March — which rules it out for the entire cyclone season. We’ve managed to send one Poseidon submarine-hunting plane to Vanuatu, but our primary naval platforms, the frigates, are doing military exercises in the South China Sea and around Malaysia. The UK’s Carrier Strike Group is now touring the region, interacting with the Five Power Defence Arrangement and AUKUS powers. Australia, Singapore and Malaysia are also involved in the military exercises.
For New Zealand, viewed as a leader in the region, these types of trade-offs between war preparation or climate action, raise big questions around our priorities and strategy in the Pacific. Questions which will come to the fore this week at the Pacific Islands Forum.
As a political body, the Pacific Islands Forum is founded on the understanding that we should determine what is best for the region together. It recognises that, for small island states, a collective approach to big issues like climate change and superpower competition is in our best interests.
That’s what genuine, Pacific-led regionalism is all about. When one nation is just one vote at global governing organisations like the United Nations General Assembly, a united and coherent Pacific Islands Forum holds a lot of bargaining power.
The Pacific Islands Forum is, however, a complex body.
The Pacific region is one of vast distance and great diversity — and bringing together the perspectives of 18 different members, which represent so many of the world’s languages and cultures, isn’t easy. Depending on the issue, achieving unity or solidarity can be difficult.
The Micronesian “schism” is an example of this. “Sub-regional” division flared in 2021 after Henry Puna from the Cook Islands was voted in as secretary general of the Forum. Traditionally, the position of secretary general has been shared between candidates from the so-called three Pacific subregions. In 2021, it was supposed to go to a Micronesian candidate. When that didn’t happen, it caused a rift with Micronesian countries, which culminated in the withdrawal of Kiribati last year.
That split was only repaired in January when Fiji’s Sitiveni Rabuka visited Kiribati, performing the Fijian bokato seek forgiveness and reaffirm togetherness. This was the “Pacific Way” in action — a diplomatic approach that’s been dubbed “Oceanic diplomacy“.
The Forum subsequently made a series of concessions to Micronesian states, and, at the summit this week, it’s expected that Nauru’s Baron Waqa will be appointed as the new secretary general. Waqa’s positions on offshore detention, human rights, Taiwan, and deep-sea mining has made him an outlier in the past. Such interpersonal issues will once again test the resolve of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Other divisive issues include deep-sea mining. This year’s summit host, the Cook Islands, supports deep-sea mining, alongside Nauru. Tonga has also expressed interest in the industry, while Papua New Guinea has withdrawn its support. The Cook Islands will want to avoid scrutiny on the issue this week, with some members, including Fiji, Palau and Sāmoa, firmly against the practice.
So, while Pacific nations appreciate the necessity of a post-pandemic economic rebuild and decreasing their reliance on donors or fickle industries like tourism, they’re equally aware of the decades of political capital they’ve invested into their image as ocean stewards, and the importance of fisheries to Pacific livelihoods.
National or self-interest can also be divisive and undermine collective progress.
On climate action, consensus has become unusually precarious. Sitiveni Rabuka was in Australia last month and endorsed Australia’s bid to host COP 31 as a “Pacific COP”. Some members of the Forum, especially Tuvalu and Vanuatu, have called on Australia to do a lot more on climate change before it can expect the blessing of Pacific nations to host a COP on their behalf.
Vanuatu’s own initiative, a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, would provide that — and they will be looking for support in Rarotonga to hold Australia accountable. This represents one of the many divisions resulting from the differences between “Pacific Island” members of the Forum and the “metropolitan” nations of New Zealand and Australia.
I highlight these issues not just to show where Forum consensus has fallen short, but to point to the bigger issues at play.
When the Forum is divided, it’s about much more than internal disagreements and differences of opinions among our own. Divisions provide opportunities for metropolitan nations or those outside the region to undermine the Forum’s collective approach and to push their own agenda in the Pacific. I can’t emphasise enough how important that is. Regionalism may be threatened by divisions, but it can also be undermined.
This is particularly pertinent in the current geopolitical environment where all eyes are on the Pacific, as the US and China compete for influence. We’re seeing “dollar diplomacy” from metropolitan nations who’d rather engage bilaterally than with the whole Forum. This has eroded consensus on key issues.
Nowhere has that been clearer than in the case of the Fukushima discharge. A Japanese charm-offensive won over Fiji’s Sitiveni Rabuka, along with Mark Brown of the Cook Islands, and David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia.
This led to the recent Forum foreign ministers meeting formulating a very weak, watered-down statement on the release, despite two years of consistent pressure under Henry Puna, to honour the Noumea and Waigani conventions. An independent Forum expert panel also considered the issue, and found safer, cost-effective alternatives to ocean dumping.
Another example has been Indonesia’s success at the Melanesian Spearhead Group summit in Vanuatu, in August this year. Many expected West Papua to be admitted as a full member of the group, with the United Liberation Movement’s former leader Benny Wenda presenting at the summit. A precedent for non-independent admissions was also set in 1989 when New Caledonia’s Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) was formally admitted to the group.
When the issue was deferred, perhaps indefinitely, some speculated it was because of the presence of Indonesia as an associate member and its support of scholarships, hospitals, and electrification in Papua New Guinea.
I also believe the lack of Pacific support for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a truce on humanitarian grounds in Gaza, reflects pressure from the US and Israel. There’s much more than religious conviction at play here.
In these instances, we’ve seen the Pacific drift from its regional commitment to self-determination. Consensus was undermined, which has been disastrous for these issues. What this also signals, however, is a greater threat to the Forum and the architecture of regionalism itself.
In September, the US held a cynically-named US-“Pacific Islands Forum” summit. The timing couldn’t have been more conspicuous. Even though this week’s summit was set down for just over a month later, the US insisted that 20 or so Pacific leaders fly into Washington DC to attend talks where it controlled the agenda.
During that September gathering, President Biden pledged US$200 million in funding for the Pacific region (he subsequently caught headlines for wrongly quoting the figure at $40 billion). It’s a significant amount nonetheless, which has the potential to make a real difference for Pacific development.
But here it’s important to look closely at the track record of the US.
First, the US has a habit of promising a lot of money for the Pacific region, which often hasn’t eventuated. For example, Biden announced a “Pacific Partnership Strategy” last year, estimated to require US$810 million to deliver. The bulk of that money was supposed to be for the ongoing development of tuna fisheries in the Pacific. However, the money still hasn’t been signed off by Congress. Congressional sign-off is also needed for the September funding announcement.
Second, a lot of the funding announced in September isn’t intended for genuine, Pacific-led development initiatives. The majority is for the US compact states, and, in the independent Pacific, a lot of it is earmarked for buying land for embassies. The US wants to open embassies in Niue and the Cook Islands, which is consistent with the preference for a bilateral approach with Pacific nations.
This is a divide-and-conquer tactic which isolates nations, erodes consensus, pre-empts agendas, and undermines the strength and independence of the Forum. I call it “ula lole (lolly necklace) diplomacy” — it’s flashy treats without substance, and it’s a major threat to regionalism.
The US approach is symptomatic of a broader trend in the region, and globally, where geostrategic competition and the traditional security interests of the great powers drive engagement between nations. Some have called this an era of great power rivalry. It’s indicative of an international system that has collapsed into this darker world that’s nakedly post-truth, ethno-nationalist, and belligerent.
For Pacific nations that have so often looked to multilateral institutions to achieve decolonisation, nuclear and climate justice, and demilitarisation, that breakdown in international diplomacy and goodwill is a significant blow.
Already, donors and metropolitan powers have essentially abandoned their so-called good governance agenda in the region. The majority of aid money in the Pacific is now circular or military in function, given to non-development initiatives or to initiatives like seasonal labour regimes, which are in the interest of sponsor countries and metropolitan powers.
Australia, for example, committed $1.9 billion in aid-spend in the Pacific last year, up to 2027. Of that, $1.4 billion is military money while another $370 million is for seasonal labour schemes. There’s not actually any money going to Pacific, self-determined development. It’s all tied to Australia’s interests, and all circular — meaning the benefits will return to Australia.
And, as the multilateral system continues to break down, this type of pseudo-investment is only likely to become more acceptable, and more common. The so-called great powers will no longer need to play nice. They can just offer money for military and other initiatives that directly benefit them.
It’s why Pacific-led regionalism and a united Pacific Islands Forum which pushes back on these disingenuous encroachments from outside the region, is so important.
I’d argue that New Zealand has a lot of ground to make up in Rarotonga this week. More than that, we need to do some soul searching on where we believe our place in the world is, and how our priorities reflect that.
In 2017, New Zealand’s Pacific Reset policy was announced, followed by the Pacific Resilience approach in 2021. The now-outgoing government said these frameworks were about centring the Pacific region in New Zealand’s world outlook. They also outlined how the government would develop the policy over time, transitioning the focus from re-establishing New Zealand’s links in the region, to building resilience among Pacific nations and the wider region. Linked to that was the announcement in October 2021 that New Zealand would quadruple its funding for international climate change aid to $1.3 billion over four years, with at least half earmarked for the Pacific.
But as New Zealand gave with one hand, it took with the other. We now know that, in the same month of committing this money, New Zealand was also weighing up its role in AUKUS, the submarine military pact between Australia, the UK and the US.
I’ve discussed AUKUS previously, and how it’s inherently anti-Pacific. The priorities of AUKUS are underpinned by an Anglosphere mindset, privileging settler-colonial nations and thought patterns which focuses on the so-called “Indo-Pacific”. As the world faces deepening disaster, AUKUS sees the Pacific as a sacrifice zone. To them, we inhabit a military buffer and climate disaster zone, and our people are collateral or instrumental in providing their security.
Disappointingly, New Zealand’s ongoing interest in the alliance — albeit supposedly as a junior partner interested only in military technology-sharing — continues to affect its priorities in the region and devalue our role in it.
It’s why the Cyclone Lola response represents more than just a cargo ship undergoing maintenance at an unfortunate time. We’re in an El Nino year, when cyclones will occur more frequently and with greater severity. This one came early, but we should expect surprises. If we’re supporting Pacific regionalism, we should be ready to contribute to a climate secure region and prioritise our resources accordingly. Instead, we seem more interested in being interoperable with AUKUS forces and participating in military exercises.
Right now, we need our leaders to articulate their understanding of who we are as a nation of the Pacific, and our role in the Pacific Islands Forum.
Much of what National, and Act, promised during the election campaign indicates their priorities aren’t with the Pacific. They appear divorced from the realities of where we are in the world.
First, there’s a question over National’s commitment to climate action with their proposals on the Emissions Trading Scheme and offshore drilling.
National wants to keep agriculture off the ETS, despite a pending 2025 deadline to bring the industry in. Agriculture makes up nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions and (unlike emissions from every other sector) are not currently priced. Both National and Act also want to reverse the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration. That raises the spectre, too, of deep-sea mining, and whether the new government will continue to support a moratorium on deep-sea mining, or initiatives like a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Second, there’s concern that the incoming government lacks Pacific expertise with potentially no Pacific MPs. Act’s comments about the Ministry for Pacific Peoples have also raised concerns about the orientation of the incoming government to the Pacific.
Third, National has also pledged to increase the number of RSE workers but hasn’t guaranteed their pay — a change that would have significant impacts in partnering Pacific nations. There are well-known problems in the RSE scheme which are yet to be systematically addressed, and National’s eagerness to expand the scheme shows little regard for the workers, families, and nations involved.
Perhaps, one of the most concerning areas is defence spending. Both National and Act have pledged to increase it from about 1.5 percent of GDP to 2 percent. If that happens, we’d be pouring about $7 billion each year into the defence force.
Make no mistake, an increase in defence spending clashes with the region’s wishes to have less militarism. It also represents New Zealand’s slide into that more sinister outlook and worldview, where security is based on military might, rather than what we’ve actually signed up to in the 2050 Blue Pacific strategy.
The strategy focuses on human development and climate action — in other words, “expanded” or genuine security. All members of the Pacific Islands Forum have endorsed it, and New Zealand’s new government would be well-placed to remember that as it takes its place in Forum talks this week in Rarotonga.
The Pacific Ocean stretches across a third of the world’s surface. Together, Pacific nations constitute a blue continent that exceeds 27 million square kilometres in territory.
Within this vastness, we can’t detach ourselves from our neighbours, no more than we can choose our family. We are looped into each other’s systems — physically, genealogically, and through our shared understanding of the world. The Pacific is a region of islands, connected through the ocean, the environment, and the ancestral links of its people.
Our collective identity frames the premise of the Pacific Islands Forum. It acknowledges that we are sovereign but tied together in so many different ways.
Achieving unity in this diversity, and consensus on issues of shared importance, has always been difficult. And now, more than ever, regionalism is being undermined.
New Zealand must understand its role in that dynamic. As a country, we appear to be sitting uneasily between the rim and basin, between the rich world and the Global South, between Britain and the South Seas.
My suggestion, however, is that New Zealand can’t isolate itself or find security outside of the region. We know there are significant challenges ahead. Whether it’s war, or instability in Pacific nations facing climate catastrophe, we will be affected — through our interpersonal connections, the economy, and through our interconnected environment.
No amount of investment in military platforms, and alignment with the AUKUS nations and their beliefs, will deny our demography and geography: we are part of the Pacific. It’s time we embrace that, and work towards mending rifts in the region and engaging in collective policies that truly embed Pacific-led regionalism.
Dr Marco de Jong is a Pacific historian. He recently completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Islands with a particular focus on anti-nuclearism and climate change. He is now serving as co-director of Te Kuaka, an independent group promoting a progressive role for Aotearoa in the world.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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