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Can the Pacific Forum learn from ASEAN?

Questions remain about whether the Pacific Islands Forum can adapt mechanisms from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to manage the heightened attention that comes with big power competition

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| East Asia Forum | Edited

CANBERRA - 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 identify solutions.

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 with the USA and China.

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 recently 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.

Similar splintering tactics could challenge the Forum’s ability to maintain regional solidarity in the face of geopolitical competition.

Pacific states did reject China’s May 2022 efforts to pursue a multilateral security and trade deal with the 10 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 previous threat to withdraw.

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.

A yacht PinterestARF 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, ARF provides a way 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.

This work is supported by an ARF Unit at the ASEAN Secretariat.

The Pacific Islands Forum does not have the expansive mandate of the ARF, nor is it supported by the same institutional architecture.

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 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”.

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.

Anna Powles is senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University. Joanne Wallis is professor of International Security and research director of the Security in the Pacific Islands program in the Stretton Institute at the University of Adelaide


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Arthur Williams

An Aljazeera interview with Indonesia President this morning reported in past 5 years China invested $40 billion in RI compared to USA's $9 billion...

Guess that's why both China and Russia say they will attend G20 in Bali. Biden must have stamped his foot when he heard Joko W. was allowing Russia to attend.

I tend to think that the plethora of so many Associations, Forum (or is that Fora?) are mind boggling and have a suspicion that they may be pushed by the world biggest nations to undermine the UN.

There is also the problem that the mini-states of the Pacific and indeed the World do not have the wealth to participate meaningfully in what must be too many meeting over any given year. PNG apparently wants to join as we have lots of high-rise building now.

Often such meetings are an annoying hindrance to daily life of any nation hosting them. When Cardiff hosted NATO in 2014 we had miles of fencing in the city centre with much traffic diversions; foreign navy boats anchored around us, helicopters above and even underwater surveys stretching miles along the coast.

The USA mob when their Chief attends sees a cavalcade of around 40 or more vehicles in his entourage.

Yesterday I saw a snippet of China's Chief being applauded on one side of the street by smiling happy citizens.

There was just a very brief glimpse of the other side that showed a high temporary fence stretching a long way into the distance with no 'fans'!

One memory I have of the now old Pre-independence warrior Julius Chan, who has just won his last re-election. He was guest speaker at the Chamber of Commerce meeting.

I and a colleague got to the venue early as he wanted to be in a good seat near the lovely sea food buffet especially its oysters. (yuk!)

The large conference room was empty except for the lone figure of PM Chan sitting at a front table checking his notes.

As an adopted New Irelander in those days I got a handshake and recognition from him as I introduced my co-worker.

How the ethos has changed in PNG with Rambo police and/or army now hovering near the 'Bigmen' who mostly travel outside the capitol by helicopter knowing too many roads have been neglected for 45 years or that the de-rigueur mode by sea means a bumpy wet-arse-ride in a fibreglass dinghy as there are almost no real coastal passenger vessels.

A positive thought - Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War!

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