Japan, like many countries, has strong strategic interests in the Pacific. But unlike many countries, Japan hosts a forum every three years with the leaders of the 14 Pacific Island countries (PICs), as well as ministerial representatives from Australia and New Zealand.
The Pacific Island Leaders Meetings have been a key part of Japan’s Pacific strategy since 1997. The eighth meeting (PALM8) begins today in Fukushima. Its theme is “We Are Islanders – Partnerships Towards Prosperous, Free and Open Pacific”.
PALM meetings don’t usually attract a lot of attention, but this year may differ given the increased interest in the Pacific. There’s a sharper focus on China’s assertive foreign policy in the region, from island building in the South China Sea to its so-called “debt-trap diplomacy”, including in the Pacific. China has promised much-needed infrastructure projects in countries such as Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and the Philippines. Now many counties are indebted to China and it’s unclear how they’ll be able to pay back the loans.
Japan’s engagement in the region isn’t new. It has been deeply engaged in the Pacific and has strong bilateral relations with many PICs. Japan provides 10 per cent of all overseas development aid (ODA) that PICS receive. That makes it the third-largest aid donor to Oceania, behind only Australia – which provides 44 per cent of all ODA – and New Zealand (14 per cent). At the end of each PALM meeting Japan announces a cooperation package for the next three years that amounts to approximately ¥50 billion (roughly US$500 million).
Japan also provides infrastructure development, as seen by the Philippines’ project, “to build subways in Manila and improve rivers in Davao City”, the construction of a highway in the Solomon Islands, the installation of a wind-power generation system in Tonga and the building of roads and bridges – among other projects – in Papua New Guinea.
Climate change concerns
Previous PALM meetings drew on Japan’s shared identity with PICs as island nations, as well as their shared interests in preserving and managing marine resources. At PALM5 in 2009, for example, they created the Pacific Environment Community Fund to find “practical Pacific-specific approaches” to combating climate change. This led to a commitment at PALM7 to build a Pacific Climate Change Centre.
Because climate change poses an existential threat to island nations, the participants have adopted other mitigation measures. After PALM7, Japan and PICs also initiated the Pacific Leaders’ Educational Assistance for Development of State to increase cooperation in priority areas, including disaster risk reduction, climate change and the environment. That led to the Hybrid Island Project – Smart Energy Integration for Resilient Islands that will introduce renewable energy technologies into the energy systems of five PICs that currently rely on diesel.
Japan has also been a strong advocate for self-sustained development. To that end, it provides capacity building and training. At PALM7, Japan outlined a plan to focus oncapacity building and technology transfer, for example by offering exchanges for some 4,000 people from PICs. Trade also features prominently in the discussions.
Such exchanges fulfil another of Japan’s diplomatic objectives: PALMs are an important platform for Japan to promote values that are fundamental to its interests, such as sustainability, transparency and freedom of maritime passage. All of that fits within the rubric of Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
Given concerns about China’s engagement in the Pacific, PALM8 will be an opportunity for Japan and the PICs to continue to promote values such as freedom of maritime passage, rule of law, peace and security, and transparency.
We can expect topics such as maritime assistance, maritime law enforcement measures, fisheries resource management, independent and sustainable development, and people-to-people exchanges to be on the agenda.
A free and open Indo-Pacific
This consistency in PALM topics to date shows that Japan’s Pacific strategy isn’t a reaction to its “race” with China in the Pacific. Rather, the strategy reinforces Japan’s key competitive advantages such as its technology and innovation strengths, its experience in disaster risk reduction management and its shared understanding of the economic importance of fisheries.
Although Japan has been increasingly active in Southeast Asia on maritime security, it hasn’t replicated similar efforts in the Pacific. As some analysts have argued, there’s a need for PICs to develop a regional maritime security strategy. PALM8 provides a good opportunity.
Additionally, Japan hasn’t sought to monopolise PALM meetings. It invited the United States to participate in PALM6. This year, it has invited New Caledonia and French Polynesia to participate for the first time. Inviting those two territories is an interesting choice: France controls both territories’ defence, foreign and monetary policies, and PICs might not appreciate French influence in regional decision-making.
This is particularly so as French President Emmanuel Macron used his recent visit to Australia to reiterate France’s commitment to the Pacific. France’s 2013 White Paper on Defence and National Security emphasised the country’s defence and security commitments in the Asia–Pacific, particularly in relation to maritime security and trade. France has the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world, the greater part of it located in the South Pacific.
Countries with strategic interests in the Pacific, such as Australia, should recognise that PALM meetings demonstrate a consistent, proactive and longer process of international engagement with PICs that no other country has managed to replicate. If slow and steady wins the race, Japan is well ahead.