Step up - to the Blue Pacific
Last night, Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, gave the Griffith Asia Lecture for 2019 in Brisbane, Australia’s gateway to the Pacific islands. Dame Meg reminded her audience of what is most important to the Forum’s members: climate change, the economy and security; in pursuit of their vision “for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity.” This is driven by collective action in the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, and encapsulated as the Blue Pacific. She said,
“The Blue Pacific represents our recognition that as a region, we are large, connected and strategically important. It speaks to our collective potential and our shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean. It underlies our ownership of our ocean space - Pacific people taking control of our domain - critical to managing our ocean resources, biodiversity, ecosystems and data, as well as for fighting the impacts of climate change.”
Dame Meg observed that this is a crossroads moment for the Pacific and that collective action by Forum members, including Australia, is essential. Our path will be set by how we respond together to the climate crisis and the geostrategic environment. She observed that there is a level of “heightened geopolitical engagement and competition” in the region and, gratifyingly, illustrated the point using the image below, that I created a few weeks ago. The point is clear: a fragmented international community is jostling to build bridges to the region. The Blue Pacific banner is a way for the region to get the most out of this ‘congestion of ideas’.
The Secretary General commended some of Australia’s efforts to align Australia’s foreign policy with the region’s security priorities, but noted that this was being done independent of the region’s own security framework, the Boe Declaration for Regional Security. This was the closest she came to a critique of Australia, indeed throughout her address she neither praised this country nor called it to account. Even when talking about the region’s top security priority, climate change, she might have noted the smell of bushfire smoke in the air and observed that ‘our islands may drown, while yours burns’. Fortunately the region’s chief diplomat can leave others to point out that climate change is a shared problem and that despite its Forum membership, Australia is yet to embrace the full meaning of what it is to be part of the Pacific family.
At Peacifica we are dedicated to a peaceful Pacific, and that this ideal has never been more relevant. We believe that peacebuilding for Pacific islanders starts in each household and community and extends all the way out to the region and the world beyond. Over the last two or three years the importance of those external influences on regional peace has grown – most of those arrows pointing to the Pacific represent initiatives announced within the last 18 months. Each is a potential source of friction, as well as of opportunity.
This is why Peacifica continues to prioritise advocacy around Australia’s relations with its island neighbours in our work. Our current research in partnership with the Whitlam Institute will make the point that Pacific islanders genuinely want Australia to be one of their closest friends, but climate change is only one of the issues that keeps the relationship from being all that it could be. Australia’s Pacific Step-up is an opportunity for us to truly embrace our island family, respecting Pacific voices and the Blue Pacific ideal. Among the international clamour the Step-up can demonstrate what true partnership looks like, and inspire others to follow Australia’s lead. But we’re not there yet.