Yasmine Wright Gittins
In his address to the 2022 Foreign Ministers Meeting, Fijian Minister for Commerce and Trade, Faiyaz Koya, called for unity in a ‘Pacific Family’ to prevent Pacific Island nations from being left vulnerable amidst geopolitical tension. The Pacific Islands are unwilling participants in the strategic interests of the US and China. Minister Koya’s call for solidarity offers an opportunity to consider how the Pacific can harness regional agency in the defence of their interests.
Individually, Pacific Island nations are vulnerable to interference. The lack of transparency in China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands this year demonstrates a concerning trend toward interference in the security and governance of Pacific Island nations. This year also featured challenges to Pacific regionalism, such as Kiribati’s withdrawal from the Pacific Island’s Forum (PIF). Such tensions suggest a weakening in the legitimacy of regional institutions and their ability to ensure security and sovereignty for Pacific nations.
The guiding principle of Pacific regionalism is a shared history and identity. The work of advocates of Pacific Island unity such as Epeli Hau’ofa, and Ratu Mara generates a narrative of solidarity and connection - a rejection of colonial deficit approaches toward the Pacific. When the Pacific Islands speak in solidarity on climate change, the world listens. A string of speeches from Pacific leaders at COP27, placed regional cooperation on climate change at the forefront of global affairs - Pacific diplomacy was elevated to a position that demanded accountability from major powers.
A united Pacific can have a higher degree of agency in countering foreign interests. Regionalism allows governments to combine resources, align policy, and strengthen economic potential. A Pacific Union would harness regional cooperation, providing greater diplomatic power to Pacific Island states and thus greater agency in geopolitical affairs.
Calls for a Pacific Union have been heard since 2003, originally proposed within PIF. It would allow governments across the Pacific to have joint political and economic institutions and goals, even the introduction of a common currency. Restrictions of membership have varied, however, there is an overarching call for New Zealand and Australia’s participation.
More recently, efforts to unite the Pacific Islands can be found within the sentiments of many Pacific leaders. The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, is an alignment of government policy toward shared regional objectives. This intergovernmental strategy lays the groundwork for a common charter. A self-sustaining, unanimous and mutually beneficial Pacific Union, based on principles that guide current regional cooperation, would facilitate a stronger regional stance on relations with other nations.
A Pacific Union would reduce internal constraints on individual nations. It would ensure improvements in sustainable development, governance systems and national security. When presenting the 2014 Framework for Pacific Regionalism, Sir Morauta, former Prime Minister of PNG, stated, “we see a region that is at a crossroads and one that needs regionalism more than ever before.” His was an acknowledgment that greater regional cooperation also improves the lives of Pacific Island peoples.
Pacific countries face domestic barriers to cooperation. Many Pacific Island nations are working to overcome historical instability and face future challenges. There remain issues managing urbanisation and population growth, allocating land resources, managing human rights, and establishing well functioning democracies.
The Pacific Islands are a diverse body. Early European colonisation involved the delegation of the Pacific into race-based divisions of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. These identities have contemporary meaning to Pacific Island peoples which can divide interests, yet also allow subregional representation. PIF fails to harness the potential for these diverse opinions by allowing these sub-regional divisions to come into conflict over leadership. In the European Union, the European Parliament, which administers common national goals, is elected through direct voting from citizens of the EU. A model similar in nature, would assist the Pacific Union in bypassing the subregional divides exacerbated by agendas of national leadership.
A Pacific Union should align the development priorities of all governments and coordinate action on transnational challenges such as climate change, fisheries, and deep-sea mining. Regional work on these issues is already having a greater effect than the work of individual states. It should establish regional corruption and governance advisory institutions. The 2005 Toward a New Pacific Regionalism report suggests that the culminated effects of poor governance in PNG, Fiji, the Solomons, and Naura has cost US$75 billion since their respective independence.
A Pacific Union should establish free trade zones that use the economic power of nations such as New Zealand to Australia to support the growth of emerging economies. The elimination of barriers to the exchange of goods, services and people would facilitate economic growth and social development in individual countries. Regional cooperation in the Pacific would help individual countries overcome the challenges that make them vulnerable to the influence of other nations.
A Pacific Union should form a bloc of power that elevates Pacific voices. The inability of PIF currently to provide the necessary platform is evidenced in the sub-regional divides that have eroded its legitimacy for the past decade.
As global powers turn their gaze toward the Pacific, it is becoming increasingly clear that the needs of Pacific peoples are unlikely to be prioritised. A united Pacific can have a higher degree of agency in countering foreign interests. The establishment of a Pacific Union is not without barriers nor a foolproof solution, however, it places Pacific Island nations in a position where their common desires would be realised in the global order.
Yasmine Wright Gittins is a New Colombo Scholar graduating with a Bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Arts (Geography, Environment and Population) from the University of Adelaide. She is a freelance journalist and aspiring researcher.