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The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) and National Security College (NSC) of the Australian National University (ANU) recently hosted officials, public servants and academics from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific at a two day workshop looking at how the ‘Pacific’ fits into the Indo-Pacific. The workshop, which took place on 6 and 7 June 2019 at the ANU, challenged academics and policy-makers to consider how the Pacific Islands factor into this strategic region — a question often overlooked in the abundant debates on the nature and future of the Indo-Pacific.
During her keynote address at DPA’s 2018 State of the Pacific conference Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, emphasised her concern about the “recasting of geostrategic competition and cooperation under the rubric of the ‘Indo-Pacific’’. The geostrategic competition between major powers in the region has caused some Pacific leaders to express their concern about the interests of the Pacific being overlooked. This sentiment was echoed and discussed throughout the workshop, with Collin Beck, Permanent Secretary, Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, encouraging partners in the region to focus on Pacific priorities to ensure a sustainable future in his keynote address. Joanne Wallis of SDSC expressed a similar opinion, saying, “In an increasingly crowded and complex geopolitical environment, the government will hopefully soon realise that Australia’s national interest in maintaining or enhancing its influence in the Pacific Islands is best served by policies that also serve the national interests of Pacific Island states.”
The workshop also coincided with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the Solomon Islands. Beck commended Australia’s outreach to the Pacific Islands in recent years and expressed excitement for Australia’s ‘Step Up’ and New Zealand’s Pacific ‘Reset’ policies. Ewen McDonald, Head, Office of the Pacific, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, quoted the Prime Minister in his keynote address – “if you’re going to ‘step up’, you’ve got to show up” and said that this has been demonstrated by the PM’s visits to Vanuatu, Fiji and Solomon Islands in 2019. McDonald added that the office is involving and listening to the Pacific Island voices while forming Australian policies.
The motivations, commonalities and potential consequences of Australia’s ‘Step Up’ agenda and New Zealand’s Pacific ‘Reset’ were deliberated throughout the two-day workshop. The framing of ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept and what it means for growing great power competition in the region gave rise to engaging discussions between panellists and members of the audience. Panellists also discussed the importance of regional institutions in the Pacific and highlighted increased engagement of Pacific Island countries on the global stage.
Another recurring topic of discussion was the 2018 Boe Declaration. The Declaration demonstrates that Pacific leaders, rather than worrying about which great power will be pre-eminent in the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ consider climate change to be the key strategic concern facing the region. In the Declaration, Pacific Island Forum leaders reaffirmed, “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”, and committed members to progress implementation of the Paris Agreement. This view was expressed most strongly by Colin Beck who, using the language of strategy and security referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier”, and suggested that without increased ambition over the next year, then the “Paris Agreement is dead”, and island countries would face a “death sentence”.
For more information and to listen to the panel discussions click here.