Pacific Island nations: ‘Climate change, not war, the main security threat’ in the region

Pang Pang village in Vanuatu was destroyed by Cyclone Pam in 2015.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi made an impassioned plea for the big powers in the region to stop bullying small Pacific Island nations just days before the 49th Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was held in Nauru over September 3-6.

Tuilaepa used an address to the Lowy Institute on August 30 to condemn “strategic manipulation” of small Pacific Island nations and called for an end to the militarisation of the region, which he said is “inculcating a far-reaching sense of insecurity”. 

Tuilaepa emphasised that the most pressing security issue for the Pacific is the “existential threat of climate change” and that Pacific nations need help in tackling this crisis.

Pacific Islands Forum

The Pacific Islands Forum comprises 14 very small countries — the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu — and two large ones, Australia and New Zealand. 

Its mission is “to work in support of Forum member governments”.

In practice, however, the two wealthy countries, which are significant aid donors to the other countries, along with being their biggest export markets, prioritise their own interests.

The forum’s final communiqué, the Boe Declaration, was clear when it came to climate change. It states: “We reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement.” 

This is significant, given that having a focus on climate change action was contested, in particular by Australia.

At last year’s forum in Port Moresby, I-Kiribati President Anote Tong suggested that Australia should leave the forum if it was not prepared to back the islands’ positions in global climate negotiations.

The forum also recognised what it euphemistically described as the “complex regional security environment”, a veiled reference to competing big powers’ militarisation of the region. 

While the forum stopped short of advocating any specific measures to alleviate this, it did affirm Pacific Island nations’ rights to conduct their national affairs “free of external interference and coercion”.

The problem, however, is that Pacific Island nations have not had any real sovereignty since the era of colonialism. 

Australia's role

While these nations are no longer officially colonies, Australia and New Zealand have maintained their colonialist approach towards them.

Since Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes declared in 1918 that Australia needed a regional policy aimed at keeping Germany out of the Pacific, Australia has had a bipartisan and paternalistic approach to the small island states.

Militarily, Australia acts as deputy sheriff to the United States in the Pacific region.

Right now, it is doing its best to help the US limit China’s influence. This includes working to stop China funding a regional military base in Fiji, which would be used for “peacekeeping training” and “pre-deployment preparation”.

A 2016 defence White Paper said Australia’s commitments are “to support [...] Pacific Island Countries to protect their security and resources”. The paper said Australia should do this “by contributing to the development of shared maritime domain awareness and by strengthening the capabilities of the defence and security forces of Pacific Island Countries”.

Australia, which has ambitions to become one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters, has already supplied Fiji with Bushmaster vehicles. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced during the Liberals’ leadership crisis in late August that Australia would wholly fund the proposed base and facilitate “greater inter-operability” between both militaries.

Even though the defence White Paper insists Australia faces little to no military threat, the government continues to organise and promote joint military exercises.

The Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2018 military exercises included defence and security training with forces in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Australian army is also helping train Vanuatu forces.

New battleground

The Pacific is rapidly becoming the latest battleground between the US and Australia on the one hand, and China on the other.

Currently, Australia, New Zealand and France have the largest armed forces in the region.

China is planning a summit for regional leaders in Papua New Guinea in November, just before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

While the Pacific region is home to just 2.3 million people, the defence White Paper projects that by 2050 almost half the world’s economic output is expected to come from the larger Indo-Pacific region, which includes critical shipping lanes in the Asia-Pacific.

The paper says the relationship between the US and China “will continue to be the most strategically important factor in the Indo-Pacific region to 2035”.

It also states that the US remains the “pre-eminent global military power and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner”.

But, as Australia’s overall aid to the Pacific region declines due to successive Coalition government budget cuts since 2013, China is set to become the largest donor to the region. More than two-thirds of Chinese aid is earmarked for transport projects, with Papua New Guinea the largest aid recipient.

With more international players in the region, analysts have noted that Pacific Island leaders are becoming more assertive.

The Samoan PM’s rebuke to Australia was just one example of this; it was followed up a few days later by comments from PIF secretary general Dame Meg Taylor, who warned Australia not to “place the wellbeing and potential of the Blue Pacific Continent at risk”. 

Including climate change as the number one security issue in the forum’s official communiqué represents a shift, given Australia’s foot-dragging on this issue.

But more than this is needed if Pacific Island nations are going to be able to weather the impact of catastrophic climate change.

PIF countries are calling for a “green-blue” model of economic growth based on the sustainable use of natural and maritime resources, alongside climate change mitigation.

Their calls may fall on deaf ears when it comes to the Australian government, but social and union movements across Australia would do well to listen and act accordingly.

The alternative is recycled defence minister Christopher Pyne’s plan which, he says, is about “being a good ally to the US … in the Indo-Pacific” and spending $200 billion over 10 years for new weapons of mass destruction to be used on enemies that even his own department says do not exist.

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