Cooperation and collaboration will help Pacific Island nations face the difficult times ahead.

Pacific Islanders will confront some of the most challenging security issues in human history in coming years. Climate change. Geostrategic competition. Food security and access to health and education after the shock of COVID, and the inflation outbreak.

A robust Pacific Islands Forum, the ASEAN or European Union equivalent in the Pacific, is essential if the region is to meet those challenges. That’s why this week’s Special Leaders Retreat in Fiji is so important. The Pacific needs a united voice. This meeting should finish healing the rift in the forum, after Micronesian representatives demanded reforms to secure better representation and more resources.

The remains of Lalomanu village after a tsunami struck Samoa in 2009. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

United against threats

The forum has been an impressive security actor in two ways.  First, its members cover one-fifth of the Earth’s surface: what a united forum says about climate change, and the state of the world’s oceans, matters. Second, the forum has had a holistic approach to security: recognising the complex interplay between big global developments and what it means to feel secure in your village and your house. That has served as a necessary corrective to a too-narrow focus on traditional security issues.

The forum’s global advocacy on climate change exemplifies its impact as a security actor. It has focused attention on the countries for which climate change is an existential threat. It has also highlighted that the impacts in the Pacific are already severe, and multiply other security risks. Australia’s well overdue recognition of the climate emergency facing the Pacific, and the proposal to co-host global negotiations with the region, further strengthens the forum’s cause.

The forum-sponsored Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is another powerful example of members coming together to address a crisis. RAMSI arrived at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government, worked alongside Solomon Islanders to restore police and government capacity, and provided space for Solomon Islanders to work through the causes of their civil conflict. 

RAMSI and Royal Solomon Islands Police patrol Honiara waterfront. Photo: Brian Hartigan, Australian Federal Police/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

RAMSI was in Solomon Islands for 14 years, and left while still popular. This patient, Pacific approach to helping a forum member through a difficult period is a stark contrast to other interventions around the world over this period that failed.

Forum members’ collective action to protect their fish stocks has also been a case study in effective security action. The Pacific accounts for 50 per cent of the global tuna catch. That’s a critical economic resource and vital for Pacific Islanders’ own food security. By banding together in the Forum Fisheries Agency, members have created a sophisticated surveillance regime to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and presented a united front in negotiations to win fair compensation from external players.

A Pacific plan of action

Where to next? The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent that forum leaders agreed to last year gives some pointers. It sets out a plan for collective action and a more responsive regional security system. That’s to help manage the increasing number and intensity of extreme weather events and other disasters; but also ensures the forum is dealing with other players from a position of strength.

The 2050 strategy is an agenda for much closer regional integration as the security challenges before members worsen. The forum won’t follow an existing template for regional integration like ASEAN or the EU; the Pacific’s pathway to tighter ties will be its own. But the plan for pooling sovereignty, as other regional organisations have done, is clear. 

A first step could be the establishment of a Blue Pacific Corps, with forum members making personnel and assets available on a permanent basis for humanitarian responses. The Blackrock Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance Camp in Fiji could become a regional training centre for the Blue Pacific Corps. 

A common carbon market could be an important economic initiative, and recognise Pacific countries’ environmental stewardship. Shared police deployments and intelligence would better fight transnational crime. And a revitalised regional pact to combat violence against women and girls would highlight the forum’s commitment to security for all.

Higher ambition for Pacific regional integration has implications for Australia. Australia’s forum membership is a strategic asset, but comes with responsibilities that haven’t always been met. Closer alignment on climate will help. Australia could make a crucial contribution to closer regional ties by ensuring its Pacific initiatives, particularly on immigration and labour mobility, extend to all forum members. This would help to sell the value of forum membership to Pacific governments and citizens – addressing the questions Micronesian members raised during the rift.

The forum should finish this week more united, and with a stronger institutional base. That’s a necessary precondition for greater success. The big issue will be how much members are willing to invest further to strengthen the forum to meet the challenges ahead. A secure Pacific depends on it.

Top image: The Solomon Islands after a tsunami. Photo: AusAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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