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Relationships are the Enduring Currency of Influence for the Pacific Islands

14 Apr 2023
By Derek Futaiasi, Priestley Habru, Maima Koro, William Waqavakatoga and Henrietta McNeill
Tuvaluan children sitting in water to demonstrate the impact of climate change, to welcome PIF leaders in 2019. Source: Charles Kadamana.

When considering statecraft in the Pacific Islands region, analysts often only look at how partners deploy tools of statecraft to influence Pacific states. Pacific states are also effective in their use of statecraft, using the same tools as their partners, but in different ways.

Statecraft is generally referred to as the actions that states take with the intent of changing: “(a) their external environment; (b) the policies and/or behaviour of target states, actors, communities, and/or individuals; and/or (c) the beliefs, attitudes, and/or opinions of target states, actors, communities, and/ or individuals.” The tools of statecraft include security and defence, economic, diplomatic, soft power, grey-zone, and black-zone elements. But these can be deployed in various ways and to different extents – as demonstrated by Pacific states.

As Pacific societies are communally structured, their tools of statecraft are drawn from this collaborative existence – often bringing together states and using forms of cultural diplomacy to achieve outcomes. As a group, Pacific states leverage these mechanisms to their advantage. Pacific states are particularly effective at using diplomatic tools of statecraft to influence partner states, including among themselves.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is one avenue for collective diplomacy. Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe noted that “Everything that comes out of PIF … has to send the strong message that, as a region, we have clear goals and we are willing to express them on the international stage, so that other nations, regions and organisations sit up and take notice.” This has been seen in the promotion of the region as the Blue Pacific Continent through the PIF’s 2050 Strategy. This was successful. Leveraging the geopolitical environment, the US-Pacific Partnership Declaration text heavily favoured Pacific interests and aligned to the PIF’s 2050 Strategy on the Blue Pacific Continent.

Other times, diplomacy as a tool of statecraft is undertaken bilaterally. Where Pacific states hold diplomatic missions is not necessarily reciprocal to the states that have diplomatic missions in Pacific states. As resource constraints challenge the ability of Pacific states to maintain widespread diplomatic representation, their choices of political investment are strategic and always have a story. Some missions are for global influence, such as at the UN or WTO, whereas other diplomatic missions signal relationships. In 2023, Papua New Guinea announced it was withdrawing its trade office from Taipei, and Solomon Islands announced that it was seeking South-South cooperation by opening a diplomatic mission in India. Closer to home, Samoa opened a diplomatic mission in Fiji last year.

Pacific states have effectively caucused as the Pacific Small Island Developing States to combat the most existential threat to the Pacific region: climate change. Their influence is strategically spread throughout the international system, including the International Maritime Organization, where as part of the Marshall Islands-led Higher Ambition Coalition, Pacific states are leading the charge to decarbonise shipping. Key climate messages, like “1.5 to stay alive” led by Pacific states within the Alliance of Small Island States, have generated global attention and solidarity and were included in the Paris Agreement. Similarly, Vanuatu spearheaded negotiations toward a Loss and Damage facility, which was agreed at COP27.

Vanuatu has also engaged in “lawfare,” using legal proceedings as a diplomatic tool of statecraft to pressure partner states to respond to climate change. Vanuatu and a coalition of 18 countries successfully gained a mandate for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on states’ legal obligations for climate action and the consequences of causing harm. The coalition received co-sponsorship from 132 states for the UN resolution. It is expected that an ICJ opinion in their favour could assist Pacific states with achieving influence in climate negotiations.

Using what is often called “the new Pacific diplomacy” and “Oceanic diplomacy,” Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka recently travelled to Kiribati as the then PIF Chair to undertake the traditional ceremonies of boka and i sevusevu – in which he proffered an apology and expressed grief to the leader and people of Kiribati to encourage them to re-join the PIF. His efforts were successful and were within the PIF Leaders’ spirit as noted in the 51st Communique.  Kiribati re-joined at the Forum Leaders Special Retreat earlier this year. This repairing of relationships is important in Pacific cultures, and a significant diplomatic tool of statecraft.

Affecting change with partners is often through collective approaches to influence, or to resist influence. Through the Pacific Way, intra-regional statecraft often manifests through dialogue as a mechanism for securing the region. PIF leaders have used regional mechanisms to constrain and influence partner states and avoid geopolitical contestation. Leaders have reiterated that they do not want the region to become “the epicentre of a future confrontation” and instead will engage on their own terms. In 2022, at the PIF leaders request, the Dialogue Partners Meeting was held online and separate to the PIF meeting to ensure the focus was not on geopolitics but on Forum unity.

Geopolitical tensions escalated in 2022 when China proposed a regional security pact that they expected each state to sign individually – telling each state that they were the last one holding out. In opposition, Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa clearly stated that regional agreements should come through the PIF rather than negotiated bilaterally. The security pact was unsuccessful.

By contrast, the US sought to negotiate collectively with the PIF on a joint declaration later that same year. Initially, Cook Islands, Niue, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia were not invited to the summit meeting hosted by President Joe Biden, likely because of their constitutional statuses as freely associated states or territories (not recognised as sovereign by the US). Demonstrating regional solidarity, at Fiamē’s request, all PIF leaders were eventually invited. At the summit, Biden announced the initiation of the formal process of recognition of Niue and Cook Islands as sovereign states, which showed the level of influence Pacific states had by ensuring their full representation. Pacific leaders collaborated successfully through diplomatic statecraft to assert their agency in partner negotiations.

In the Pacific, influence is not necessarily based on financial or security resources. Instead, quality relationships are the enduring currency of influence. The quality of relationships determines outcomes far more so than might and money in the Pacific – a perspective which should be appreciated and shared by partners.

This text is based on research recently published in Adelaide Papers on Pacific Security. Read the full report here: “Lalaga, tithiki, talia vata: Pacific Islands weaving statecraft.”

Derek Futaiasi is a Pacific Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide.

Priestley Habru is a PhD scholar in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide.

Maima Koro is a Pacific Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. She was bestowed the Samoan chiefly title of Maualaivao in 2008.

William Waqavakatoga is a PhD scholar in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide.

Henrietta McNeill is a Research Associate at the University of Adelaide and a PhD scholar in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.