Fitting the Pacific into Indo-Pacific

A free and open Indo-Pacific must centre climate change and ensure Pacific voices are being elevated, writes Kate Clayton.

Kate Clayton is a Research Officer at La Trobe Asia and a post-graduate student of La Trobe University.

In 2017 former Samoan Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi stated that “the sheer factor of our geography places the Pacific at the centre of contemporary global politics”. However, a glance at the policies of regional powers will reveal that for many, the Indo-Pacific is at the centre of new power competition.

As China rises, US primacy in the Asia-Pacific is being challenged, leading the US and its allies to remap the Asia-Pacific into the new Indo-Pacific region in an attempt to centre US dominance and counter regional compeition.

A maritime concept, the Indo-Pacific joins the Indian and the Pacific oceans together into a single strategic region. Key multilateral groupings in the region, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, India, Australia and the US, aim to create a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ under a ‘rules-based order’. However, for many states in the region, US-China competition is not their biggest security concern - climate change is.

Alongside Indo-Pacific strategies, Pacific leaders are pushing for a reframing of their region to the Blue Pacific, centering Pacific voices and climate change as key to regional dynamics. The Blue Pacific concept aims to re-define the region from small island states to large ocean states. It pushes for a more assertive Pacific diplomacy, where climate change and other non-traditional security concerns as laid out in the 2018 Boe Declaration.

Historically, interest in the Pacific Islands has ebbed and flowed alongside geopolitical trends. With increased Chinese engagement, the region has seen an influx of attention from regional and extra-regional players. This includes Australia’s ‘Pacific Step Up’, New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Reset’, Indonesia’s ‘Pacific Elevation’, US ‘Pacific Pledge’, UK’s ’Pacific Uplift’, and India’s ‘Act East’.

For France, Japan and other states in the region, the Pacific fits into their broader Indo-Pacific policies. These strategies have seen an increase in diplomatic footprints, more cooperation and aid to the region. However, the perspectives of Pacific Island nations and ensuring genuine two-way collaboration is often left out of policymaking.

Many of these Pacific policies fall short on collaborative engagement with the Pacific. Australia, the biggest aid donor and largest state in the region, has faced criticism from Pacific leaders for its climate change inaction.

While Australian aid contributes to climate adaptation, Australia has not joined the Green Climate Fund, which is a priority in the Kainaki II Declaration that Australia signed. Further, Pacific leaders have criticised Australia’s domestic climate policies. In a 2020 open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, fourteen Pacific leaders condemned Morrison’s climate policies as “weak”, urging Australia to fulfil its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

At the September 2021 Quad Leaders Summit, the Quad committed to “enhanced climate adaptation, resilience and preparedness”. These commitments need to be supported by inclusive climate policies that empower and centre Pacific voices. For Pacific policies to succeed, Indo-Pacific states must engage with Pacific Islands on climate change and recognise the Blue Pacific.

A key theme across both the Indo-Pacific and Blue Pacific mapping is the centring of the Ocean. For Indo-Pacific strategies, a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ emphasises international norms, ensuring that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is upheld and maritime trade is protected.

However, the Blue Pacific centres climate change and Pacific voices. Cultural connections to the ocean are essential to Pacific identities and ocean resource management. The Blue Pacific emphasises the “shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean and reaffirms the connections of Pacific peoples with their natural resources, environment, cultures and livelihoods”.

The Blue Pacific and Indo-Pacific are not competing frameworks. They can work in tandem so long as Pacific voices are not being pushed out in favour of bigger states. Indo-Pacific states can demonstrate their commitment to Pacific concerns by centring climate change action in their Indo-Pacific strategies.

Under the Biden Administration, there is renewed hope for climate change to become central to the Indo-Pacific. Biden’s foreign policy has been climate-focused since re- signing the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. At the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in 2021, Biden “committed to being a global leader in climate change”.

In the same way ASEAN centrality asserts ASEAN as the key regional institution in the Indo-Pacific, the Blue Pacific must be given the same level of importance in regional architecture. The Pacific Island region is one-third of the world’s total surface. The contribution of Pacific voices to global politics and oceanic management is vital to securing a free and open Indo-Pacific.

There is no Indo-Pacific future without the Blue Pacific, and a free and open Indo-Pacific must centre climate change and ensure Pacific voices are being elevated. Indo-Pacific leaders face the dual challenge of a rising China and combating climate change. However, whilst conflict with China is not inevitable, climate change is.