Opinion: The Pacific Islands should speak as one

In the face of ‘geostrategic competition’ between world powers, the Pacific region is at a critical juncture in its history. Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, says there ‘has never been a more important, nor opportune, time’ to act as one Blue Pacific continent.

The Pacific Islands Secretariat’s Dame Meg Taylor.

We have witnessed a recasting of geostrategic competition and cooperation under the rubric of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, with the Indian and Pacific Oceans increasingly being seen by a number of our traditional partners as one single strategic space.

The Pacific Islands have rarely featured in the discussions except from a perspective of vulnerability to China’s influence and therefore as a part of the Indo-Pacific that needs to be ‘secured’ by, and for, external partners.

Exercising stronger strategic autonomy as one Blue Pacific continent requires being clear on who we are as the Pacific.

‘We can enhance the strategic autonomy of our region.’

Only once we clearly claim our collective geography, identity and resources will we be able to effectively secure the place and agency of the Pacific in the fast-changing global context.

Ocean continent

By framing Our Islands as one ocean continent we can enhance the strategic autonomy of our region by identifying and leveraging the value that the Blue Pacific continent holds—not just for us, but for those seeking access to it.

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This value is derived from various sources: our control of almost 10 per cent of UN voting rights; the world’s largest ocean resources including US$6 billion in fisheries; ‘unvalued’ ecosystem services and biodiversity; our people and our rich cultural heritage; our geostrategic positioning; and a range of geo-economic opportunities.

A concrete task is securing our maritime boundaries. The Pacific Island Countries and Territories manage 20 per cent of the world’s ocean in their Exclusive Economic Zones.

‘Such divisive politics are inconsistent with our region.’

Of the 47 shared boundaries in the Pacific, 35 treaties have been concluded.

The settlement of maritime boundaries provides certainty to the ownership of our ocean space, as Pacific people taking control of our domain.

It is critical to managing our ocean resources, biodiversity, ecosystems and data—as well as for fighting the impacts of climate change.

Divisive politics

The continued rise of China, and the unconventional politics of the Trump administration in the US, are creating great shifts and uncertainty.

A range of actors portray China’s growing presence in our region as an either/or predicament for the Pacific; that is, insisting that the Pacific must choose sides.

Such divisive politics are inconsistent with our region.

‘Despite all the aid received in the Pacific we still remain economically vulnerable and dependent on the good will of others.’

We need to talk more openly about what the rise of China means for our region, and indeed how we can engage with all partners in a manner that advances our development, our security, prosperity and harmony.

Key parts of the discussion might include the pros and cons of engaging as a region with China’s Belt and Road Initiative—or as I prefer to rename it for our purposes because of the reality of our place, the Belt and Seaways Initiative; closer dialogue with China (and other dialogue partners) over the removal of harmful fisheries subsidies; or how partners can work together to ensure sustainable, resilient infrastructure for the Pacific.

Debt

Closely linked to discussions on China is the issue of debt sustainability.

There have been suggestions that the leaders of Pacific Island Countries don’t understand the risks of taking on loans from China.

The single experience of Sri Lanka is used to warn us of the threat of Chinese loans, serving as a signal to the region.

However, many of the large infrastructure projects in the region are with development partners (including China) and the large financial institutions of our own region.

We must seek to understand the underlying reasons that enable such issues to emerge in the first place.

Despite all the aid received in the Pacific we still remain economically vulnerable and dependent on the good will of others.

We need to ensure that the assistance we are receiving builds on the capacities of our nations to enhance their socio-economic self-reliance and resilience.

That means investing in capacity and infrastructure.

These building blocks of growth are expensive and require long-term commitments in supporting complementary institutional and policy development.

It is one of the reasons why Chinese assistance is attractive to the Pacific. In response to China’s growing influence, we see competing infrastructure initiatives emerging from Japan, the US and Australia.

While this could be good news for the Pacific, we must tackle the problem at its cause, rather than getting drawn into the political jousting of others.

Dame Meg Taylor is the Secretary-General to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. This is an excerpt from her recent speech to the 2018 State of the Pacific Conference at the Australian National University.

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