An ASEAN-style forum for Pacific island nations?

The Royal Australian Navy ships HMAS Supply (left) and HMAS Adelaide conduct a replenishment at sea during Operation Tonga Assist 2022. (Photo: Australian Department of Defence/CPL Robert Whitmore)

Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should help create an ASEAN-style forum for Pacific island nations to discuss security and manage geopolitical challenges, according to a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The report, Smooth sailing? How Australia, New Zealand and the United States partner in – and with – the Pacific Islands, by Joanne Wallis and Anna Powles was released earlier this month.

The call for a dialogue, modelled on the ASEAN regional forum, is one of several recommendations to improve security partnerships and coordination in the region, reducing the risk that the three countries trip over one another and lose sight of the Pacific’s own priorities as they deepen their Pacific ties out of strategic necessity amid China’s growing interest.

“Importantly, Australia, New Zealand and the US should avoid competing with one another and instead cooperate more closely to pool their collective strengths,” the report states.

While focusing on those three countries, the report stresses that wider partnerships should be considered, including with France, India, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and European Union.

It states that the three countries will have to get used to greater Chinese involvement in the Pacific, even if they don’t accept it, much less like it.

To manage such challenges, a Pacific version of the ASEAN regional forum would help island nations “to manage great powers and other partners…and retain a sense of strategic autonomy”, as it currently does for Southeast Asian nations.

This would be a way for Australia, New Zealand and the US to help the Pacific Island Forum “to respond to geopolitical challenges, manage their strategic relationships and pursue their security agendas with partners”.

While Australia and New Zealand have long been deeply involved in the Pacific, the increasing attention from Washington is shifting the status quo, leading to a danger that without astute co-ordination, the “partnerships might not be smooth sailing”.

In recent years, the report states, the Pacific island countries (PICs) have put greater emphasis on their own sovereignty and agency and, while Australia, New Zealand and the US recognise this rhetorically, “how that plays out in practice is less clear – and current indications aren’t entirely promising”.

The three nations will need to think carefully about how they balance their values and interests, for example, when it comes to speaking out about democratic backsliding in the Pacific. Muted responses to the Papua New Guinea government’s slowness in acting on the Bougainville independence referendum could test how Australia “balances its interests and its values”.

Pacific nations’ own defence forces should be invited to take part more in regional groupings of larger nations. For example, the so-called “Pacific Quad” of Australia, France, New Zealand and the US, which focusses on maritime surveillance, is underused and should be expanded to include Pacific defence and security agencies.

“This would require intelligence-sharing and would be a valuable demonstration of trust in the PICs – since, to earn trust, partners must trust each other in return,” the report states.

Pacific leaders should also be invited to participate in leaders meetings on the sidelines of the Quad meetings between Australia, India, Japan and the US. And the FRANZ grouping of France, Australia and New Zealand should be expanded to include Pacific defence forces in humanitarian and disaster relief activities.

The establishment of an ASEAN-style security forum could be done by expanding the existing Forum Dialogue Partners, rather than creating a new body, noting the risk of fatigue among Pacific leaders with the existing number of regional groupings.

The report notes that the US and China’s attention on the Pacific “illustrates their growing recognition of its strategic importance in the highly contested Indo-Pacific”.

Whatever misgivings Australia, New Zealand, and the US have about Chinese involvement in areas such as HADR, they will need to accept better co-ordination with Beijing as the regularity and severity of natural disasters continues to rise, it states.

“That could raise serious co-ordination challenges, with potentially adverse consequences for the host PIC and for the personnel delivering assistance. Australia, New Zealand and the US do need to consider how they’ll work alongside China in response to the inevitable next disaster.”

While China might not want to co-operate, an effort by Australia, New Zealand and the US would be well-received by Pacific capitals, which don’t like being forced to “choose sides”.

Click here to read the report.


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