Dragged into the Indo-Pacific map, Pacific islands have other priorities
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
In the era of amplified political feuds and economic competition, “Indo-Pacific” is the buzzword in every policy statement, diplomatic decision and defense blueprint.
China’s burgeoning military and economic power— through its Belt and Road Initiative—has triggered an intensified anxiety that drives the acceleration of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Hence the birth of security groupings such as AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) and the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral, more commonly known as “The Quad.”
“We will support and empower allies and partners as they take on regional leadership roles themselves, and we will work in flexible groupings that pool our collective strength to face up to the defining issues of our time, particularly through the Quad,” states the Indo-Pacific Strategy report released by the White House in February.
The Pacific islands region—alternately known as “Oceania, “Blue Pacific” or "Blue Continent"— has been dragged into the escalating power game. While torn among the superpowers, Pacific island nations have been assigned a key role in regional security.
Air, water and land resources are the currencies in the Compacts of Free Association talks between the U.S. and freely associated states—the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Their strategic locations — taken advantage of during WWII —make them the perfect alternate sites for any military operations.
Henryk Szadziewski, director of research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, noted the superpowers’ apparent attempts to perpetuate their colonial clout over the island nations.
In an article titled “Finding the Pacific in the Indo-Pacific” published on the Policy Forum website, Szadziewski pointed out that states in Oceania are seeking “to diversify relations beyond former and current colonial powers.”
The Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands and Kiribati, for example, are friends of China. Such alliances are mostly motivated by economic purposes.
As for priorities, the Pacific island nations have identified the climate crisis as their top concern. “However, it appears that external powers believe only they can define Oceania’s new relevance,” wrote Szadziewski, a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii.
The United States has been working overtime to rebuild its engagement in the Blue Pacific to make up for long years of neglect. This time, the U.S. anticipates a "long-term future" in the region.
However, the Pacific Elders Voice, a group formed by former political leaders of island states, resents the Pacific islands’ alienation from the process that advances a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“This new attention to the Pacific has not been developed through full and proper consultation with all Pacific countries,” PEV said in a statement.
PEV is composed of former presidents of Pacific island nations and leaders of regional organizations. Members include former Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr., former Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, and former Guam Congressman Robert Underwood among others.
The Indo-Pacific landscape mapped out by policymakers and defense planners doesn’t suit the Pacific Elders well. Lumping the Pacific islands together with Indian Ocean countries is “problematic” and “unacceptable,” they said.
“The Pacific island region (commonly referred to by Pacific islanders as the Moana) has its own set of unique challenges and should not be linked with the Indian Ocean in a blanket, military perspective,” the PEV statement said.
Henry Puna, secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, agreed that the Blue Pacific has other agendas that are not necessarily linked to geopolitical conflicts in the region.
“While international partners may have made their geostrategic shift to the Indo-Pacific, our Forum leaders are determined to articulate and drive the strategic interests and our development priorities of our own region – the Blue Pacific,” Puna said at the Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in Paris on Feb. 22.
Being the custodians of the world’s largest and abundant ocean “is a role we take seriously,” Puna said.
The Pacific Islands Forum’s response to the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy is the “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent,” which will direct the region’s destiny shaped by those who live in it.
“The shaping of the strategy will articulate our collective priorities for the benefit of all Pacific people. These include climate change and oceans, economic development, technology and connectivity, and people-centered development,” Puna said.
The strategy, he added, is founded on what the region has to offer such as its strategic, cultural and economic value.
“We are interested in, and open to inclusive and enduring partnerships. Partnerships that recognize and support the collective strength and wellbeing of our Blue Pacific region,” Puna said. “Partnerships that do not conflict with, but rather are aligned and in flow with the vision and priorities of our 2050 Strategy.”
One of the goals set in the 2050 Strategy is to keep the Blue Pacific a nuclear-free zone— which Pacific leaders fear might be hindered by AUKUS. The trilateral treaty involves the development of nuclear submarines for Australia.
“Australia’s potential acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, as Pacific islanders continue to manage the trauma of American, British, and French nuclear testing, has not been well-received,” Szadziewskiwrote.
The legacies of the United States’ nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s remain a contentious issue that the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission continues to fight for.
Puna agreed that nuclear threats continue to shadow the Pacific region, which is still dealing with the impact of the testing of nuclear weapons and storage of nuclear waste.
“While the world benefits from the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the generation of low carbon electricity and life-changing applications in medicine, science and industry, our Pacific island nations are facing the dire possibility of being at the receiving end of a large-scale nuclear accident,” he said.
“As we strive to ensure the freedom of our Blue Pacific from nuclear waste and contamination threats, we remain committed to keeping our region nuclear-free as espoused under our South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty,” Puna said.
This is Blue Pacific’s own strategy.
“Generations of Pacific citizens have not had to deal with the realities and lessons of our colonial and post-colonial past,” Puna said. “It is important that the lessons which have strengthened our collective resolve and regional solidarity, continue to inform our understanding of why these issues are so important for us.”