Finding the Pacific in the 'Indo-Pacific'
By Henryk Szadziewski
Many external powers have attempted to subsume the Pacific into their strategic narratives, but have in the process largely ignored the interests of the islands themselves, Henryk Szadziewski writes.
Oceania has become the subject of a proliferation of new policies of external powers. The economic presence of the People’s Republic of China is a leading factor in the development of these Pacific agendas, opening a new era of uncertain political and economic competition. The arrival of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the region has only heightened the strategic anxiety of the United States, Australia, and other powers.
In 2012, and in response to several high-level diplomatic visits to Oceania, then-President of Kiribati Anote Tong remarked wryly, ‘it is nice to be relevant. Given the wide range of Pacific initiatives proposed, his words were also prescient. Within the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), states in Oceania seek to not only diversify relations beyond former and current colonial powers, but also prioritize human security emergencies, such as the climate crisis.
The two largest economies in the region, Australia and New Zealand, have both sought to ‘recommit’ to Oceania after a period of perceived neglect.
In 2017, Australia declared a ‘Pacific Step-up’ as part of a white paper on foreign policy. The Step-up, combined in 2019 with the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility, aimed to ‘engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition, deliver more integrated and innovative policy and make further, substantial long-term investments in the region’s development.
In 2018, then-Foreign Minister Winston Peters announced New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Reset ‘, which outlined five principles of understanding, friendship, mutual benefit, collective ambition, and sustainability to bring shared prosperity with states in Oceania.
In comparison, the United States has been far more explicit about its geopolitical goals in the region. The 2018 Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, released in January 2021, outlined plans to keep the entire Pacific Island region aligned with the United States."
The United States' Indo-Pacific strategy, which is primarily a defense policy, illustrates the entanglement of geopolitical goals with geoeconomics. The strategy prioritizes the maintenance of an American-led order in a region covering two oceans.
Moreover, a 2019 U.S. Department of Defense report not only outlines America’s historical claim to an Indo-Pacific presence, but also its leadership in ensuring a networked space upholding the international rules-based order.
There is no ambivalence in naming the foremost challenge to this order, with the document singling out the China threat and recommending enhanced security efforts between allied nations to ensure a "free and open" region.
In a more directed approach toward Oceania, the United States initiated the Pacific Pledge of the Indo-Pacific Strategy in October 2019. The subsequent focus on pandemic recovery and the economy, again, appear to compete with the availability of Chinese state capital and iterative donations of personal protective equipment and Covid-19 vaccines.
Further, in re-territorializing two ocean spaces into one area of strategic interest, the United States envisions economic benefits through free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity.
Taiwan implemented a New Southbound Policy in 2016, which targets Australia and New Zealand, among other states in Asia, as alternative economic partners to China.
Taiwan also re-established the Austronesian Forum in 2018, which comprises of 13 members and promotes a shared identity with Pacific Islanders through an Austronesian ethnicity built on links between Taiwan’s indigenous population and the Pacific through historic migrations across the Pacific Ocean.
The Forum seeks to enhance the value of cultural sustainability, democracy, good governance, human rights, and sustainable development through close cooperation.
Taiwan’s deployment of shared identities and histories is mirrored elsewhere. The Pacific Reset and Pacific Step-up literature describe New Zealand and Australia as Pacific countries, whilst the Indo-Pacific Strategy explains that the United States has given ‘blood and treasure to sustain the freedoms, openness, and opportunity of this region’.
Further afield, states across Asia have included Oceania in the rewiring of their economic connectivity, with Indonesia’s ‘Pacific Elevation’ being a notable example. Indonesia’s outreach is undercut in many Pacific societies due to its ongoing occupation of West Papua.
However, this did not stop Indonesia’s foreign minister from laying claim to a Pacific identity in a July 2019 speech at the Jakarta-organised Pacific Exposition. Jakarta has also continued to float the idea of preferential trade agreements with Papua New Guinea and Fiji, however, as Tarcisius Kabutaulaka skeptically observed, this is likely being pursued as a quid pro quo for turning a blind eye on West Papua.
India’s transnational vision of ‘Act East’ had its origins in earlier "Look East" policies. Act East began with states in East and Southeast Asia, before including Oceania as India became strategically attached to the spatial narratives of the Indo-Pacific. The Forum for India–Pacific Islands Cooperation, held for the first time in 2014, was the most visible expression of Act East in Oceania.
While Japan favors multilateral engagement through the triennial and assistance-focused Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) summits, Oceania has also been integrated into Tokyo’s policy of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Whilst external powers have been attempting to make their weight felt in the region, Pacific Island countries have sought to reassert their autonomy and sovereignty.
In 2017, Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders endorsed the Blue Pacific strategy "to re-capture the collective potential of the region’s shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean."
While essentially a restatement of the shared identity endorsed in the 2014 Framework for Pacific Regionalism, the Blue Pacific also upheld the framework’s agenda of sustainable development, economic growth, strengthened systems, and security for all.
Unsurprisingly, given the emergence of several external agendas, the Blue Pacific concept aims to prioritize the welfare of Pacific peoples. PIF’s 2018 Boe Declaration emphasized human security, particularly the climate crisis.
Discourses about the China threat emanating from Washington, Canberra, and elsewhere have accrued only passing interest in the region given the existential threat of rising sea levels and the preference to keep power politics out of the region.
The Indo-Pacific and China-focused AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, announced in September 2021, has only strengthened regional concern about the militarisation of Oceania. 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.
States in Oceania are seeking to not only diversify relations beyond former and current colonial powers, but also prioritize human security emergencies, such as the climate crisis. However, it appears that external powers believe only they can define Oceania’s new relevance.
Henryk Szadziewski is director of Research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project and a PhD candidate at The University of Hawaii. (Policy Forum)