The Pacific Islands Forum can learn from ASEAN

| August 15, 2022

In the recently agreed 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, and before that the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, the Pacific Islands Forum is seeking to both define the challenges facing the region and to lead the solutions.

The Strategy and Declaration both acknowledge the growing role of geopolitical competition in the Pacific islands — and the Forum Secretariat and member states are considering concrete ways to manage it. They might look to the Forum’s Southeast Asian counterpart, ASEAN, for ideas about how to act as both a buffer and a bulwark in the face of geopolitical rivalry.

Southeast Asia has long been the object of great power rivalry, but ASEAN has, despite criticism, acted as a fulcrum around which big power jostling is stabilised. This has increased ASEAN’s ability to leverage the political and economic interests of its member states.

ASEAN has acted as an ‘enhancer, legitimiser, socialiser, buffer, hedger and lever’ for member states navigating the region and managing their international relationships. It has socialised partner states to accept and maintain the rhetoric of ASEAN centrality.

It has also institutionalised its dialogue partnerships through mechanisms like the ASEAN–US Plan of Action (2021–2025) and the ASEAN–China Strategic Partnership. Both the United States and China (as well as Australia) have ASEAN envoys.

The Pacific’s partners have been slower to recognise the centrality of the Pacific Islands Forum. While the United States and China are Forum dialogue partners, Washington only just announced plans to appoint an envoy and China has no equivalent appointment.

Washington’s move to have US Vice President Kamala Harris address the July 2022 Forum Leaders’ Meeting highlights that partners are seeking to increase their engagement. But this heightened attention could inadvertently undermine regionalism if it exacerbates existing intra-regional fault lines, such as those that led to the withdrawal of the five Micronesian Forum members in 2021.

Cambodia’s close relations with China have undermined ASEAN unity on the South China Sea. Similar splintering tactics could challenge the Forum’s ability to maintain regional solidarity in the face of geopolitical competition.

Pacific states rejected China’s May 2022 efforts to pursue a multilateral security and trade deal with the ten states with which it has diplomatic relations, preferring that these discussions occur within the Forum. But it is unclear whether this unified position will hold, given that Kiribati opted to stay outside the Forum when its Micronesian neighbours cancelled their withdrawal this year.

This suggests that the Forum should rethink how it manages its strategic relationships and the security agendas of its partners. Forum leaders have committed to reviewing the regional architecture and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) provides a model they could consider.

The ARF is a platform for security dialogue between ASEAN members and their dialogue partners. Its purpose is to ‘foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern’. Although ASEAN members and their partners have differing strategic outlooks, the ARF provides a way — along with parallel bilateral and minilateral arrangements — to manage the great powers and retain a sense of strategic autonomy amongst ASEAN members.

The annual ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting is supported by an annual Senior Officials’ Meeting, an annual Inter-Sessional Support Group Meeting of working-level officials, and other workshops and activities. An Experts and Eminent Persons Group also advises ARF officials, as do several second-track institutions and networks. This work is supported by an ARF Unit at the ASEAN Secretariat.

While the Forum Dialogue Partner mechanism facilitates dialogue and engagement between partners and Pacific Islands Forum members, it does not currently have the expansive mandate of the ARF, nor is it supported by the same institutional architecture. The Dialogue was not held after the 2022 Forum leaders’ meeting due to fears that it might distract from the important tasks of repairing regional relationships and agreeing to the 2050 Strategy.

A mechanism like the ARF could provide an opportunity for Pacific states and their partners to foster dialogue and build confidence as competition between partners intensifies.

There is a weariness in the Pacific about calls to develop new regional arrangements. Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna argued at the August 2022 Pacific Regional Law Enforcement Conference that the Pacific should ‘[review] existing frameworks, [identify] loopholes, and [establish] shared priorities so that we as a region can work together to strengthen our resilience and contribute to the achievement of our ambitions under the 2050 Strategy’.

This suggests that any Pacific equivalent of the ARF should build on existing regional arrangements. Expanding and institutionalising the Forum Dialogue Partner mechanism to facilitate member states’ engagement with partners on security matters seems the most straightforward route.

Key will be elevating the level of participants in this mechanism — with a Foreign Ministers-level meeting akin to the ARF important to embedding Forum centrality in geopolitical debates about the region. It will also need to be provided with institutional support by the Forum Secretariat.

Puna’s argument also suggests that new mechanisms — such as the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative designed to facilitate cooperation between the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Japan — risk sidelining or duplicating regional solutions and might be better replaced by a Forum-centred coordination mechanism.

The 2050 Strategy argues that the Pacific occupies a ‘significant place in global strategic terms’ and that ‘heightened geopolitical competition’ impacts its members. Pacific Islands Forum members could consider what ARF mechanisms might be usefully adapted to the Pacific context to ensure that Pacific regionalism is an effective buffer and bulwark in the face of strategic competition.

This article was written by Anna Powles, a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, and Joanne Wallis. It was published by the East Asia Forum.