Concluding today is the 49th Pacific Islands Forum, an annual three-day summit that has gone broadly unnoticed by much of the world. The few headlines that managed to creep their way into continental news agencies concerned a minor spat between the host, Nauru, and China, whose delegation eventually walked out of a meeting Sept. 4. Most overlooked the fact that forum members agreed in principle to jointly augment the national security of Pacific island nations.
The agreement, called the Boe Declaration, has been in the works for a few months. Australia and New Zealand, the two strongest forum nations, hinted in July that a new regional security architecture would be announced at the recent summit. Outspoken advocates of the declaration, Australia and New Zealand want to strengthen the forum to counter China’s growing economic influence in this part of the world. Until recently, the biggest threats to the forum were run-of-the-mill internal problems such as civil unrest and natural disasters. But Canberra and Wellington want these island nations to prepare for worse.
The new declaration itself, like others before it, is almost uniformly unremarkable. It repeats previous declarations and offers platitudes about cooperation and information sharing. It identifies no country as a threat – if anything, parts of it are as much a criticism of U.S. efforts to undermine international institutions as they are a defense against Chinese intrusion.
Unlike others before it, however, the new declaration includes in a small section near the end wherein the forum members “recognize that national security impacts on regional security” and pledge to develop national security capacities accordingly. That is a sea change. The previous security framework, known as the Biketawa Declaration, is far more specific on the mechanism by which forum nations can intervene in the affairs of neighbors – Australia and New Zealand have used it in recent years to deploy forces to the Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tonga – but it is chiefly concerned with internal problems that require outside assistance. The Boe Declaration explicitly deals with the need for forum nations to develop capacities to resist external threats. The post-summit communique also notes that a detailed plan for implementation of the Boe Declaration will be completed by November.
As with all multilateral institutions, the challenge for the forum is that its members all have different national interests. The forum comprises 18 countries, and while most of them share a similar geographic identity as small island states in the South Pacific, they don’t necessarily share the same goals. Nauru, for example, still recognizes Taiwan, and barely trades with China. (It accounts for just about 1 percent of Nauru’s total imports and exports). That’s a far cry from a country such as Vanuatu, which owes half of its $440 million in foreign debt to China, which is also the island’s top source of imports and a top five export destination. Samoa and Fiji criticized Nauru for rocking the boat with China even as they were agreeing to boost national security capacities.
Even so, the Boe Declaration was adopted unanimously and so is a first step toward a more unified Pacific Islands Forum, with Australia and New Zealand playing a leading role in its cohesion. For all the talk of China’s ambitions, Australia and New Zealand are still in charge, dominating forum countries by almost every metric. The Boe Declaration reflects this balance of power even as it acknowledges what has now become clear – that these small nations are caught in the current of great power politics.