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The Butterfly Effect of Small Power Diplomacy: Pacific Islands as Agenda Setters in the Indo-Pacific

The Pacific Island Forum was established to provide a common space for its members to achieve their shared goals. However, the effort is obstructed by chronic shortfalls that hinder its effectiveness. It is, therefore, vital that solutions be found that address discord outside but also within.

The flags of the PIF and its Member States © Pacific Islands Forum Website


The rise of minilaterals across the Indo-Pacific is rapidly becoming the new normal following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which nudged the countries to see renewed merit in pooling their scientific, financial, and technological resources to achieve means to ends. This paradigm tilt towards sustainable collaborations, endorsed by like-minded actors, re-affirms their commitment to diffused reciprocity, “where they participate not because of ensuing rewards from specific actors but in the interests of continuing satisfactory overall results for the group of which one is a part, as a whole”. (Keohane, 1986, p. 40).

While the growth of need-based regional groupings might seem like a fairly recent functionalist response to the globalisation wave, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), established in 1971, was one of the first maritime intergovernmental organisations to rally the newly independent Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian territories together and demonstrate self-assertiveness among island nations in the Indo-Pacific. The PIF, as a post-colonial construct, provided a common platform for the island states to deal with the rigours of global politics and trade, and formulate a collective regional agenda suited to their development goals (Ratuva, 2021).

As an exemplar of the exhibition of strategic autonomy by small powers in the region, the PIF's early reconnaissance of traditional and non-traditional security threats (such as health epidemics, climate change, piracy, disaster risk, and economic inequality) brushing its shores displayed a matured sense of geopolitical consciousness and situational awareness. As a crucial stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, its vision is a testimony to this sentiment.

However, despite its notable achievements in targeting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) and banning marine plastic pollutants, the PIF has been unsuccessful in establishing a considerable geopolitical footprint vis à vis its ideological successors in the Indo-Pacific. Contrarily, younger blocs like the QUAD, AUKUS and ASEAN now wield greater regional strategic heft. Partaking in initiatives like "Vaccine Diplomacy" and the joint action on Humanitarian and Disaster Risk (HADR), these blocs have cemented their credibility for a rules-based international order and have taken concrete steps to actualise the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

While the PIF's early thought leadership and blueprint for asserting geopolitical agency looked promising, the Islands have ironically continued to bear the incidental costs of great-power competition in their backyard since 2013. With growing threat perceptions (such as USA-China rivalry, Partners in Blue Pacific Initiative, and China-Solomon Islands Security pact) and continued international silence over the PIF's clarion calls for cooperation on climate change, the Islands now stare at the challenge of untying the Indo-Pacific Double Knot. The first knot signals the need to tackle the implications of rising sea levels that stand to potentially wipe out their existence by 2060 (Parsons, 2022), and the second symbolises the pertinent need to assert its strategic autonomy and heighten engagement with fellow stakeholders in the region, through small power diplomacy.

The fragmented forum: Divided we stand, divided we fall

In addition to putting off fires beyond the coast, the formerly 18-member union, comprising of the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, Australia and New Zealand (Ratuva, 2021), is jostled in the midst of a strategic juggernaut owing to several disruptive domestic events (such as the Bougainville conflict, Solomon Islands crisis, Fiji coups, Tongan riots) and the sparring over the island chain's allegiance to either of the Kangaroo or Kiwi axis.

Further compounding its pre-existing woes and aspirations to alter the geostrategic calculus in the region is the persistent trust deficit among its member countries. The principles of Pacific Regionalism (Ratuva, 2021) that constitute the bedrock of PIF faced their toughest litmus test post the unceremonious exit of Micronesian countries (i.e. Micronexit) from the grouping in 2021. This singular event threw a spanner into the materialisation of the long-celebrated concept of the "Pacific Way" (Mara, 1997) and the virtue of collective accountability. The subsequent internal fracturing of sub-regional relations amongst the PIF member states was attributed to the lack of consensus over the gentleman's agreement (Paskal, 2021), which ascertained the legitimacy of the forum's rotational 5-year Presidentship system.

While the leaders of the regional bloc eventually resolved the impasse by unanimously brokering a reform package to institutionalise a formal process for leadership rotation in 2022, the incident managed to blow away the fig leaf that had been concealing the deepening political fault lines amongst members of the PIF. Given the transitory nature of geopolitical configurations in the 21st-century Indo-Pacific, it is now pertinent for the PIF to assert its agency, re-establish its centrality and recalibrate its foreign policy toolkit to identify key areas of synergy with similarly aligned stakeholders to sustain itself.

Co-operation, centrality and collaboration: The determinants of Pacific Island's hierarchy of needs

"A house divided against itself, cannot stand"

-Bible (Matthew, 12:25)

The short-lived Micronexit uncovered the growing anxieties surrounding perceived power

asymmetries, the lack of representation and rising sub-regional nationalism amongst member countries of the PIF. From a "Five Eyes" perspective, the United States of America and Japan have always focused on Micronesia, Australia on Melanesia, and New Zealand on Polynesia (Paskal, 2021). This dynamic, largely pushed by Canberra and Wellington, further complicated the geopolitical soup in which the PIF has been caught up. Restricting the entry of Washington's polities (Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas) into the PIF and allowing those of French Polynesian countries to join the organisation never sat well with the former. The USA's disappointment was based on the general assumption that Australia and New Zealand did not want it in the PIF as it would dilute the votes of their "zones of influence" (Paskal, 2021).

Thus, diverging opinions, varying allegiances (New Zealand and Australia Axis), and the continued inter-play of extra-regional actors (USA, France, China, Japan, UK) stand to impede the PIF's efforts at incubating an enabling environment to address joint challenges and undermine its legitimacy as an inclusive and deliberative organisation. The fragmentation of the PIF is also in sharp contrast to its commitment to uphold the Talanoa Concept, a traditional Fijian word used to denote transparent, participatory, consensus-based dialogue that fosters stability and encourages decision-making for the greater good (UNFCCC, 2018).

While the PIF managed to avert a major crisis and potential disbandment in 2022, the

sustained lack of mediation on issues inducing friction (Kiribati and Solomon Islands switching support from Taiwan to China in 2019) and the deficiency of political will to resolve them could continue to jeopardise the credibility of the organisation. Sustained divergence in perspectives also stands to decelerate intra-regional cooperation on common challenges like redressing climate change, undertaking community-building measures, developing resilient supply chains post-COVID-19 and achieving global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets. With a growing spirit of divisiveness percolating within the PIF, it seems pertinent for policymakers to develop workable mechanisms for resolving intra-forum disputes following the rule of law.

In the last few years, New Zealand, Australia, France and the USA have unveiled new bilateral policies to facilitate greater socio-economic and political integration with Melanesia and Polynesia and Micronesia, respectively. Canberra's "Pacific Step-up Plan, 2016", Wellington's "Pacific Reset Plan, 2018", Paris' "Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group" and "FRANZ agreement" (Paskal, 2021) overtly focussed on humanitarian relief coordination (as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic) and military engagement (redevelopment of naval bases in Papua New Guinea, military exercises (like RIPMAC, Oguri-Verny, etc.). Washington, on the other hand, offered to serve as the net-security provider for Compact of Free Association (COFA) protected countries (through Valiant Shield exercises, Christmas Drop, etc.).

Charting the way ahead: The tale of 3 C's and 3 S's

While extra-regional players in the Indo-Pacific have taken an active interest in facilitating inclusivity by bandwagoning with the Island Nations, the PIF, however, has failed to devise a comprehensive integration plan to intensify interactions among its member states. To ensure longevity, sustained cooperation, and put forth a united stand, it is essential that the members of the Pacific Islands Forum follow the 3 S's, i.e., Stand out, Step up and Set the terms of engagement, to attain the 3 C's, i.e., Co-operation, Centrality and Communication, and forge their way ahead.

"We cannot deny that small island developing states are exceptionally vulnerable, but I don't believe that we are powerless"

-Abdulla Shahid, Foreign Minister of Maldives

The geography of island nations across the Pacific Oceans places them at the strategic crossroads of great power competition (Baruah & Labh, 2023). The member states of the PIF are thus uniquely positioned (stand out) to capitalise on their geostrategic location in the Pacific Ocean and undergo geopolitical transmutation to evolve from a silent marionette to an assertive and self-determined player in the seas.

The Pacific Islands encompass nearly 28 per cent of all global exclusive economic zones (Hanich & Tsamenyi, 2006). With the great game for control over one of the world's busiest trade routes afoot, it is only fair that the PIF steps up from its self-induced policy stasis. The PIF can let go of this inertia by setting the terms of engagement and rallying its allies to manifest shared goals for the Blue Economy. The pre-existing trust deficit among member countries of the forum can be addressed by facilitating cooperation to unanimously implement the "2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent" (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2022). Satyendra Prasad, the former Ambassador of Fiji to the United Nations and the United States, once remarked that "[g]reat power competition means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising sea. The greatest threat we face isn't geopolitics, it's climate change" (Prasad & Samaranayake, 2022).

Given the urgency to address the prevailing climate security issues, the island nations must set aside their differences and assert their centrality, for the Talanoa that binds them together cannot be realised unless the PIF puts up a united front. Lastly, collaborating with like-minded stakeholders (i.e. USA, NZ, Australia, France, Japan) to strategically offset the growing influence of China in the region could help the Pacific Islands tip the balance of power in their favour in the Pacific Ocean.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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