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It’s Time for a “Step-Up” to a Pacific Islands Community

09 Dec 2021
By Chris Hamer and Pera Wells
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, addressing the audience at the launch of the Pacific Skills Partnership. Photo: Nicholas Flack / DFAT.

The influence of China has been growing within the Pacific Islands. To guard against this influence, Australia needs to embrace its Pacific neighbours more closely.

There has been a general trend towards regional integration around the globe since World War II, following the pioneering example of Europe, with the aim to provide regional solutions to communal needs or problems. Australia and New Zealand have established close links to the island nations of the Pacific through the Pacific Islands Forum, to the extent that in the era of George W. Bush, Australia was unofficially dubbed the “deputy sheriff” for the region by the US. More recently, alarm at the growing influence of China in the region has led Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call for a “step-up” in Australia’s relations with the forum. However, what form should this “step-up” take?

Now is a fitting time to upgrade the present Pacific Islands Forum into a “Pacific Islands Community,” again following the European example. A community would have more formal means of reaching collective decisions, and more power to implement them. New features could firstly include a Council of Ministers, consisting of the ministers from each member state in a particular area – such as defence or fisheries –  which would then meet as needed to formulate policy proposals for consideration by the supreme Council of Leaders in that area. A mechanism of “qualified majority voting” should be used in the Council of Ministers, to avoid possible deadlocks due to a veto by a single member. Secondly, a Community Parliamentary Assembly should be set up as an enlargement of the present Forum Presiding Officers Conference (FPOC). This would provide a democratic voice within the community, and could indeed be the nucleus of an eventual Pacific Parliament. Finally, a reserve panel of judges should be appointed to a Pacific Islands Court, to adjudge cases involving regional treaties. For instance, the court could assess penalties for illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the exclusive economic zones of the member states.

The new community would enable the Pacific Island states to take collective responsibility for maintaining peace and security in their own region. It would allow the establishment of a Pacific Islands Regiment, to carry out peacekeeping duties both within and outside the region. The recent renewed disturbances in the Solomon Islands provide a timely example. It would have been much better if the Pacific Islands Forum, or the proposed community, had possessed its own means of restoring peace and settling the dispute afterwards. Furthermore, a Pacific Islands Regiment would provide a significant source of employment and income for some of the smaller island states

The intangible benefits would be even more important. The islands would have greater control over their own destiny, rather than being client states of Australia and New Zealand, and would thus feel greater loyalty towards the new community. For instance, the Micronesian states, which recently threatened to leave the forum, should be attracted back to the new community straight away, given that they would have a more equal say in the affairs of the new community, and would reap its increased benefits.

Maintaining and deepening the regional integration between the Pacific Island states is the right thing to do in any case. It can do much to promote peace and prosperity in the region. The smaller island states simply cannot provide all the benefits of modern life for themselves, and must rely on help and cooperation from the larger states to provide higher education, technical skills, industrial goods, and employment for their people. Trade, investment, and transport are best coordinated at the regional level, as is the supervision and conservation of natural resources, such as the fish stocks in the ocean and the tropical forests on land. The region also faces critical communal problems, such as climate change and the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

The islands should thus be happy to join the new community. In discussions of the old Pacific Plan in 2007, there was even mention of a future Pacific Union. A former prime minister of New Zealand, Mike Moore, wrote a book in 1982 on the idea of a Pacific Parliament. And the most recent strategy document from the forum secretariat offers an ambitious long-term “Vision for a Blue Pacific” in 2050, declaring that, “Our Pacific Vision is for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives.”

The participation of Australia and New Zealand in a new Pacific Islands Community is somewhat more problematic. This scheme would require a certain magnanimity from them, because they would have to give up control of the substantial resources, both physical and financial, which they would contribute to the new community. However, both countries are committed to the welfare of their island neighbours.

In addition, there has been alarm in Australia over the increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific region, including the possibility that China might set up a military base in Vanuatu. The aggressive behaviour of China in the South China Sea, and its threats against the democratic government in Taiwan, have only heightened this concern.

Australia and New Zealand must counter the growing Chinese influence in the region by forging closer relations with their neighbours. In 2016, Morrison, announced  the “step up” in its relations with the Pacific Islands Forum, and paid several visits to other members of the Pacific “family.” This year will see Australia’s  largest ever development assistance contribution to the region – $1.4 billion –  despite the decline in Australia’s overall aid budget. Australia will also be spending $500 million to ameliorate the effects of climate change in the region.

Formation of  a Pacific Islands Community would set the seal on these efforts, and go a long way to counter any possibility of undue foreign influence in the region. It would also be a big step towards the realisation of the bright vision of a Blue Pacific Continent in the future.

Chris Hamer is the President of the World Citizens Association of Australia

Pera Wells is a former diplomat and former Secretary-General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

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