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Pacific security: whose strategy is it?

Updated: Nov 8, 2023



By Maima Koro


The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting this week takes place amid a changing dynamic of security and development in the region. Security agreements have become an important measure of the close relationship between global partners and Pacific island states. In geopolitics, this "close relationship" is usually another way of saying partners have influence, control or power over Pacific countries.


Meanwhile, social and economic development has long been at the top of the regional agenda. The widely held view is that security in a holistic sense can best be achieved through well-developed societies. As security and development are really two sides of the same coin, security challenges are greatest where development has lagged behind.


Now Pacific people have noticed that the external focus on their security agenda has disrupted the region’s development priorities. For them, the Pacific is their home, not a "strategic interest."


The Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting this week in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, is an opportunity to address this widening gap and to consider how the aspirations of the 2050 Strategy endorsed by the Forum in 2019 have fared.


In 2022, journalist Dorothy Wickam wrote in The New York Times about the reality of the Solomon Islands 40 years after independence: “Many still lack access to running water, basic sanitation and electricity. Jobs are scarce, access to health care is limited and high numbers of children are stunted by poor diets. Already prone to earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, we face ominous new threats because of climate change, including coral bleaching and rising sea levels that are slowly washing away islands.”


Similar issues have come up in a regional perspectives study underway in Vanuatu to understand peoples’ concerns: namely, access to clean water and improved critical infrastructure – health, education, electricity and transport.


When Pacific leaders talk about shared aspirations for their people to “lead free, healthy and productive lives,” these are the development challenges they see as regional security priorities.


However, external partners are consumed with security arrangements outside the existing development strategies – as if the two are unrelated. Security has changed the dynamic of development in the Pacific.


The most obvious sign of this change is the return of the old guard to the region – the U.K., the U.S., France, Germany and others, leveraging their past to reestablish strategic relationships.


Emmanuel Macron's visit to the Pacific in July this year was the first time a French president ventured to the region beyond its own overseas territories, a historic trip touted as part of France’s effort to counter the growing influence of China.


Another sign has been the addition of new summits. The U.S.-Pacific Islands Country summit was held last year. In May this year, the Korea-Pacific Islands summit took place a few days after Papua New Guinea hosted the third meeting of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).


The FIPIC agenda this year was heavily influenced by geopolitics. PNG Prime Minister James Marape lauded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “leader of the Global South.” U.S. President Joe Biden, although expected, was not able to attend. China, meanwhile, has been trying to get Forum members’ support for security and trade arrangements since signing a security pact last year with the Solomon Islands.


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Australia continues its own balancing act as a Forum member. It talks the language of the Pacific family while advocating strongly for the importance of engagement with Indo-Pacific partners and trumpeting its alliance with the U.S., as demonstrated by the AUKUS agreement. A key component of this new security agenda is the introduction of security strategies.


Forum leaders mandated the 2018 Boe Declaration to define security in its own context, mainly reinforcing members’ well-documented development challenges. Six members have national security strategies, either as approved or draft versions – the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. All versions mirror their development issues. In this context, some structural changes can have a positive impact on the Pacific. The Australia Pacific Engagement Visa has potential economic benefits.


Both Australia and New Zealand offer short-term employment opportunities in the horticultural and agricultural sectors to some Pacific countries under their respective seasonal worker program to meet recurring demands.


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The programs need greater oversight to harness their socio-economic benefits, but improvements to homes in Samoa, for example, can be directly attributed to the economic returns of the seasonal workers schemes.


The shift to direct budgetary support in aid funding is also good for meaningful relationship building, and for delivering direct services to communities.


However, the pledges coming out of the various summits promising billions may make for interesting kava conversations, but whether they go further than that is the real question. If that sounds skeptical, it’s worth recalling Dorothy Wickam’s observation that for over 40 years in the Pacific, development at the basic level has remained largely static.


Maima Koro is a Pacific Research Fellow for the Regional Perspectives Project, a research collaboration between the University of Adelaide with Pacific partners, funded by the Defence, Science and Technology Group. She is also pursuing PhD studies, focusing on the intersection of security and justice in Pacific communities. Her research interests include global security, geopolitics, development studies and ethics. Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.




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