Keynote Address by PIFS Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor
2018 State of the Pacific Conference, 8th September 2018
Australia National University, Canberra, Australia
I acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Marise Payne, members of the diplomatic corps, Vice Chancellor of ANU, distinguished guests, conference delegates, students, ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to think that we are all here for the same reasons; that is, we all want to make a contribution to realising the potential of our Pacific region and its people. And not simply because of the many challenges facing our region, but because we see opportunities for transforming the state of the Pacific. We are here because we know that when we work together, drawing on our strengths, we can achieve much for our people of the Blue Pacific. Not often are we presented with the opportunity to bring together thought, political, policy and practice leaders – practitioners, researchers and officials, to discuss and debate the advancement of our region. So let us make the most of the coming few days.
Global and Regional Geopolitics
It has been a fascinating 12 months for both global and regional politics, as well as domestically, for some of our members. I join you all this morning having just returned from the 49th Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru. –The Government and people of the Republic of Nauru must be commended for hosting a successful 49th Pacific Islands Forum. It was indeed uplifting to witness the spirit of the Nauruan people who came together to deliver their best for the Forum and related meetings. I also acknowledge that this Forum was, by far, one of the most challenging since assuming the role of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. However, I am heartened, and continually so, by the resolve of our Leaders to seek compromise and resolutions as our region again becomes a place of increasing interest by our traditional partners as well as new partners. External political and divisive influences and tensions has meant the Forum has had to – as a collective – contend with, confront and contest a myriad of issues.
It is important that we protect the prime purpose of the Pacific Islands Forum – to provide the Leaders with the space and time to dialogue and reach political settlements on issues that are of vital importance to the region. In turning to global politics and the continued rise of China – we have witnessed a recasting of geostrategic competition and cooperation under the rubric of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with the Indian and Pacific Oceans increasingly being seen by a number of our traditional partners as one single strategic space.
In contrast, former Forum Chair, the Honourable Prime Minister of Samoa commented during his public lecture at the Lowy Institute delivered just two weeks ago that the renewed vigour with which a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy’ is being pursued leaves us with much uncertainty. For the Pacific, he fears, there is a real risk of privileging the ‘Indo’ over the ‘Pacific’. Indeed, the Pacific Islands region has been largely absent from these debates. Very little has been written and published from a Pacific Islands perspective and the Pacific Islands has rarely featured in the discussions except from a perspective of vulnerability to China’s influence and therefore as a part of the Indo-Pacific that needs to be ‘secured’ by and for external partners.
Key questions for the Forum Family – in the context of an emerging Indo-Pacific solidarity – are how does the Pacific maintain and strengthen its own strategic autonomy? How do we ensure our regional priorities are neither undermined through the breaking of our Pacific solidarity, nor appropriated by the narratives of others not of our region?
Exercising stronger strategic autonomy as one Blue Pacific continent requires being clear on who we are as the Pacific. Only once we clearly claim our collective geography, identity and resources will we be able to effectively secure the place and agency of the Pacific in the fast-changing global context.
The Idea of Oceania
This challenge is indeed nothing new and builds on a rich history of thinking about the possibilities of an Oceania continent. In 1949, Albert Norman – writing in the wake of the establishment of the South Pacific Commission (now the Pacific Community – SPC) – noted, “the trends of powerful national policies, originating outside the region, beset the desire of Oceanic peoples to improve their over-all economy. It will be the task of the South Pacific Commission to find means of resolving such problems and to activate latent economic resources and so promote the social reclamation of the world’s seventh ‘continent’ and its people”.
Further, he emphasised how colonial powers arbitrarily imposed political and geographical divisions that promoted an impression of a broken up society “hopelessly separated from its essential parts”. In response, Norman was advocating for a “reclamation project” whose first step would be to overlook the divisions and restore the essential regional viewpoint and unity.
Nearly five decades later, Epeli Hau’ofa echoed similar sentiments in his reflections on the dominant portrayal of Pacific Islands as small, lacking in resources, and isolated from centres of economic growth to ever be able to rise above their present condition of dependence. Similar to Norman, for Hau’ofa, this portrayal stems from the relatively recent creation of boundaries that criss-cross an ocean that was previously boundless. In contrast to the view of ‘Pacific Islands’ which denotes small areas of land dotted within the vast Pacific Ocean, Hau’ofa evokes ‘Oceania’ as a ‘sea of islands’ and the story of Pacific peoples and cultures moving and mingling, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected by external powers.
Fast forward to the present and many of the commitments made by Forum Leaders build in these inspirational narratives of Oceania as a solution to our structural constraints and vulnerabilities. For example, twenty years after Hau’ofa, Sir Mekere Morauta, of Papua New Guinea, wrote in the preface to the Pacific Plan Review Report, “the region is vulnerable and it remains significantly dependent on the economies and goodwill of others…the process of advancing regionalism needs to deliver bigger results: to be genuinely game-changing in terms of mitigating the region’s vulnerabilities and dependencies, which will otherwise dog its social, economic and environmental well-being”.
In recent years, I have witnessed greater effort and commitment to building collective solidarity by the members of the Forum family. In 2017, Forum Leaders’ endorsed the Blue Pacific narrative, which seeks to build an understanding, in our own terms, of the strategic value of our region and guides our political conversations towards leveraging this value to drive our development as one Blue Pacific continent.
In essence, all of these appeals to Oceania, of who we are, respond to an awareness of the missed potential of our ocean continent, or as Hau’ofa describes it, the way the hoped for era of autonomy following political independence has not materialised. In response they all seek to reframe the region away from the enduring narrative of small, isolated and fragile, to a narrative of a large, connected and strategically important ocean continent.
It is against this backdrop that Leaders’ welcomed the theme for this year’s Forum meeting in Nauru, “Building a Strong Pacific: Our Islands, Our People, Our Will”. The theme picks up on the issues that I have just outlined – and particularly the issues of structural vulnerability, dependency, and the failures of approaches to development that have been imported from outside our region.
Making it Happen
Perhaps some key questions I would like you to carry in your minds over the next few days is how can these ideas help us think through the current challenges and opportunities faced by the Pacific region? How can we build on these narratives and learn the lessons of previous attempts to realise them? What are the concrete possibilities that exist today for realising the Blue Pacific continent?
Notwithstanding the Samoan Prime Minister’s concerns, one thing we know with certainty is that as a result of the increased global competition we are witnessing a renewed interest and engagement in our region by both traditional and non-traditional actors. This creates both challenges and opportunities for us. In particular, it challenges us to maintain our solidarity in the face of those who seek to divide us, particularly through the aggressive pursuit of bilateral interests. However, at the same time it invites us to consider how the Blue Pacific narrative offers us more than simply a foundation for solidarity, as crucial as that may be. By framing Our Islands as one ocean continent we can enhance the strategic autonomy of our region by identifying and leveraging the value that the Blue Pacific continent holds – not just for us, but for those seeking access to it.
This value is derived from various sources including our control of almost 10% of UN voting rights; the world’s largest ocean resources including a $6 billion fisheries; undervalued ecosystem services and biodiversity; our people and our rich cultural heritage; geostrategic positioning; and a range of geo-economic opportunities. Therefore, as the Forum Officials Committee concluded recently at their meeting in Samoa, increasing the value proposition of our Blue Pacific is vital to securing the well-being and potential of Our Islands and Our People.
A very concrete task in this regard is securing our maritime boundaries. The Pacific Island Countries and Territories manage 20% of the world’s ocean in their Exclusive Economic Zones. Of the 47 shared boundaries in the Pacific, 35 treaties have been concluded. The settlement of maritime boundaries provides certainty to the ownership of our ocean space, as Pacific people taking control of our domain, which is critical to managing our ocean resources, biodiversity, ecosystems and data, as well as for fighting the impacts of climate change. In securing our place, we can be more assertive in leveraging our value with partners and the international community – to continue crafting, strengthening and influencing regional and global agreements to help secure the vital interests of our shared Blue Continent.
The 2018 Forum Leaders Meeting
I trust that you would have had a chance to review the less than a week-old Forum Communique and related documents – and I trust that you will agree with me that the priorities set by Leaders’ for the coming 12 months are wholly consistent with the idea of an autonomous ocean continent.
Last week Leaders reaffirmed the Blue Pacific as the basis for asserting ‘Our Will’, for strengthening our solidarity on the global stage, and for securing the potential of our region to drive our development ambitions and aspirations. More specifically, they committed to stronger security collaboration in order to address our multifaceted vulnerability and security challenges; through the Boe Declaration. They endorsed the Pacific Resilience Facility, demonstrates greater responsibility by Forum Member Countries for resilience investment of new projects and/or retro-fitting existing infrastructure projects to make them risk resilient.
They agreed to secure the geography of our Blue Pacific by concluding negotiations on and declaring all outstanding maritime boundaries, including the limits of our exclusive economic zones.
They committed to ensuring strong Forum engagement and advocacy of crucial positions on climate change, fisheries and Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction; and, they committed to the well-being of Our People by ensuring whole of government efforts and resources to tackle childhood obesity and early childhood development, and NCDs.
They will continue to dialogue with Indonesia on the issue of human rights in West Papua; and what I think is a particularly a commendable decision, Leaders’ approved a sustainable funding strategy that will see Forum Island countries increase their membership contributions from 26% to 51% of PIFS primary budget over a nine-year period.
But before we do that I would like to conclude with some personal, and perhaps provocative thoughts on a few issues that have dominated media in our region over the past 12 months, but on which we have variably heard the voice of the Pacific.
The continued rise of China, and the unconventional politics of the Trump administration in the US, are creating great shifts and uncertainty. The media coverage on the rise of China in our region has framed many of our Forum members in an unfavourable manner, possibly even questioning their ability to exercise their own sovereignty. Furthermore, a range of actors portray China’s growing presence in our region as an either/or predicament for the Pacific; that is, insisting that the Pacific must choose sides. Such divisive politics are inconsistent with our region which values open and genuine relationships, and inclusive and enduring partnerships within our region and beyond. We all know that it has been a long term approach of the Pacific to welcome all partners who are willing to engage with us on our terms, and ‘being friends to all’. As I mentioned earlier, through the Blue Pacific narrative we are in an even stronger position to determine the terms of those engagements.
I believe we need to talk more openly about what the rise of China means for our region, and indeed how we can engage with all partners in a manner that advances our development, our security, prosperity and harmony. Key parts of the discussion might include the pros and cons of engaging as a region with China’s Belt and Road Initiative – or as I prefer to rename it for our purposes because of the reality of our place, the Belt and Seaways Initiative; closer dialogue with China (and other dialogue partners) over the removal of harmful fisheries subsidies; or how partners can work together to ensure sustainable, resilient infrastructure for the Pacific. We’ve seen examples of the latter already. And while there’s always room for improvement, such collaboration is in line with the Forum’s value of inclusive and enduring partnerships.
Closely linked to discussions on China in our region is the issue of debt sustainability. As mentioned earlier, there is recognition of the region’s dependency on the good will of others and a desire to begin to identify and implement ways out of these dependencies. However, in the meantime Pacific Islands countries must continue to work with partners to generate necessary financing for their resilient development. While many island nations have had donor relations with China for some time, over the past 12 months their relationship with China has been increasingly viewed by some to be problematic.
Indeed there have been suggestions that the leaders of Pacific Island Countries don’t understand the risks of taking on loans from China. Further, the single experience of Sri Lanka is used to warn us of threat of Chinese loans and serves as a signal to the region. However, many of the large infrastructure projects in the region are with development partners (including China) and the large financial institutions of our own region.
While some countries seek to leverage the issue for their own geostrategic ends, I believe we need to have a more constructive dialogue on the issue. For example, we must seek to understand the underlying reasons that enable such issues to emerge in the first place. Indeed, despite all the aid received in the Pacific we still remain economically vulnerable and we still remain dependent on the good will of others. Therefore, we need to ensure that the assistance we are receiving builds on the capacities of our nations to enhance their socio-economic self-reliance and resilience. And that means investing in capacity and infrastructure.
Infrastructure is crucial for growing resilient economies in the Pacific. These building blocks of growth are expensive and require long term commitments in supporting complementary institutional and policy development. This is one of the reasons why Chinese assistance is attractive to the Pacific. In response to China’s growing influence we see competing infrastructure initiatives emerging from Japan, the US and Australia. While this could be good news for the Pacific, we must tackle the problem at its cause, rather than getting drawn into the political jousting of others.
With the endorsement of the Boe Declaration (formerly known during its formation as ‘Biketawa Plus’) last week, Forum Leaders reaffirmed that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the security and well-being of Pacific Island people. Therefore, Forum Island Countries continue to strongly advocated for greater mitigation efforts for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are urgently required by all countries if we are to guarantee the existence of the Blue Pacific and our Planet – as we know it.
Some Forum member countries have used international and sub-regional fora to reproach countries, including Australia, for the continued development of fossil fuel industries and some have also joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance during COP23 last year. However, given the truly desperate times being faced by the region’s most vulnerable nations, I believe it is time for such a conversation to take place within the Forum family.
I know our chair for the panel session Mr James Batley wrote recently that Australia’s position on climate change is simply political reality. However, it is absolutely essential that we work together to move the discussion with Australia to develop a pathway that will minimise the impacts of climate change for the future of all of our islands and our people – including Australia. The Blue Pacific belongs to all of us and its value can only be effectively realised collectively. We cannot afford to have one or two of us acting in ways that place the well-being and potential of the Blue Pacific Continent at risk.
To conclude: I believe we are at a critical juncture in the history of our region and of the Forum. There has never been a more important nor opportune time to act as one Blue Pacific continent. Important because the current global shifts demand a more resolute solidarity in the face of threats to our Blue Pacific value and values. Opportune because the current context provides an unprecedented opportunity for increasing and leveraging the value of our Blue Pacific Continent.
This context demands a range of focused political conversations. I hope that your debates and discussions over the next couple of days will help guide and inform these conversations. We need to work together to ensure that in the years to come, the stories we are telling about the State of the Pacific are ones of empowerment, self-reliance and resilience. That we can be sure the Blue Pacific is a place of peace and prosperity, for ourselves and for the Blue Planet and its people. Thank you.
 Norman, Albert, Reclamation in Oceania, Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1949, p. 22.
For more information, speeches or opinion pieces from Dame Meg Taylor please visit https://www.forumsec.org/