Regional power play



Pacific leaders are extremely capable of leveraging the strategic anxieties of external actors to secure opportunities and support, despite valid concerns that strategic competition disrupts and undermines regionalism and regional unity, says Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand.

Speaking to Wansolwara News on the increasing international interest in the Pacific region during the recent 51st Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting (PIF51) in Suva, Dr Powles said concerns around the geopolitical influence of external actors, particularly perceptions of China’s presence in the region, could be due to the increased tempo of partners and projects, poor or zero co-ordination, or the failure to align with Pacific priorities.

“There is a risk that the geopolitical contest for influence in the Pacific is a disrupter within Pacific countries as well as within the broader region,” she said.

“Pacific countries have managed competition between China and Taiwan without it becoming a cause for tension; the foreign policy decisions of Pacific countries are rightly viewed to be sovereign decisions.

Dr Anna Powles. Picture:

“However, the Pacific may need to consider drawing a red line when it comes to strategic competition in the region if it threatens to create intra-regional tensions.”

While the high-level dialogues between PIF leaders and stakeholders focused on the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and its seven thematic areas including climate change, regionalism and security, one of the major highlights at PIF51 was the virtual address and announcement by US Vice-President Kamala Harris of several initiatives to strengthen US partnerships in the region.

This included plans to establish new US embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, increased funding for economic development and ocean resilience as well as establishing the first US strategy on the Pacific Islands—a whole-of-government strategy to prioritise the Pacific Islands in American foreign policy and drive effective implementation.

“We are hearing a lot of rhetoric about partnership and commitments but it is very similar to Campbell and Clinton’s promises under the US pivot in 2012 — it feels like déjà vu,” Dr Powles said.

In terms of emerging risks and opportunities of the geopolitical tussle for influence and collaboration in the Pacific, Dr Powles said the health of the Pacific Islands Forum and its convening power was on display during PIF51.

“On the one hand, this meeting was highly significant and that was reflected by the fact that the US had secured an opportunity for VP Harris to speak to the Leaders — a point that won’t be lost on Beijing — but we are also seeing some fractures too with Kiribati withdrawing on the eve of the Forum, the Marshall Islands and Nauru not attending, and the absence of Cook Islands PM Mark Brown,” Dr Powles said.

“Pacific buy-in of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and its message of family, regional unity and the Pacific way is going to be fundamental to anchoring the Forum at the heart of regionalism but also shoring up regionalism through strengthening of the regional architecture.”


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