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Power battle good for region

Dr Sandra Tarte (right) speaking to journalists. Photo: NUKU'ALOFA TIMES

Tarte says countries should diversify


Suva, Fiji – May 7, 2019: 8pm (Nuku’alofa Times): Pacific Island countries should take advantage of the current shifts in geopolitics in the region to discuss partnerships that would help their national interests, a leading Suva based academic has stated.

China’s entrance into the region has forced regional partners to rethink their engagement with the PICs in a big way.

Sandra Tarte, Head of School and Director, Politics and International Affairs at the The University of the South Pacific, made the comments while speaking to the media here in Suva today.

Speaking as a panellist at the Pacific Journalists’ Dialogue at the Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting (FEMM) at the Forum Secretariat in Nasese, Associate Professor Tarte said the increased geopolitical activity in the region offers regional countries the opportunity to use that to their advantage.

Fiji is one country, she said, that has taken care of that development.

The shifts in global and Pacific geopolitics have coincided with a period of significant change in Pacific regional politics and diplomacy.

“The changing geopolitics has been an enabling environment for this new diplomacy,” Dr Tarte said.

“Fiji is an interesting case of a Pacific country that was forced to diversify its international partnerships (after suspension from the Forum) and in the process developed much closer ties with China. This relationship has attracted criticism domestically as well as consternation abroad. But our traditional partners have returned (following the 2014 elections).

“Fiji now is taking advantage of this ‘changing external environment’ – which has presented Fiji with more options and alternatives.”

The agreement to develop the Blackrock Military Base with Australia, after China’s offer failed to meet Fiji’s needs, is case in point.

“Interestingly we see China’s influence being diluted as a result,” Associate Professor Tarte concluded.

Dr Tarte said the shifts in global and Pacific geopolitics have coincided with a period of significant change in Pacific regional politics and diplomacy.

“In the past ten years we have seen what has been dubbed a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way the Pacific engages both at the regional and at global levels,” she said.

“This shift began in part as a response to discontent with the way our traditional partners (Australia and New Zealand in particular) dominated regional forums and imposed their own agendas on the region (development, trade, climate, decolonization, oceans and so on).”

An important catalyst was the suspension of Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 which triggered a move at the United Nations for Pacific island missions to operate/caucus through the Pacific Small Island Development States (SIDS) group.

That also pushed Fiji to reinvigorate the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and establish the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF).

China’s emergence as a regional power has raised concerns from the region’s traditional partners, the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand. Japan also waded in to some extent.

China’s entry into the region has been underway for some time, but started to really pick up with the rise of President Xi Jinping, who became President in 2013.

He launched a strategy of global engagement called the Belt and Road Initiative that year, marking a more assertive engagement with the Pacific.

President Xi paid a state visit to Fiji in late 2014 – where he also met other Pacific island leaders from those countries with diplomatic relations with China.

Six Pacific countries have diplomatic ties with Taiwan and they can not have diplomatic relations with China.

Associate Professor Tarte said that it was on this visit that he set out a plan for heightened engagement with the Pacific islands.

President Xi backed up this announcement by restating economic commitments made in late 2013 at a China-Pacific islands summit on economic development and cooperation, which included an aid package of $1 billion in concessional loans and a $1 billon special loan fund to support infrastructure development in the region.

China is now the second largest aid donor to Pacific island states, behind Australia but ahead of New Zealand and Japan.

The region’s traditional partners in the US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand have also responded by announcing their own Pacific plans.

In mid-2018, Australia, New Zealand and the US formed a trilateral partnership intended to mobilize investment in infrastructure – and to foster a free and open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Australia, New Zealand and the US have also launched a Pacific Security Cooperation Dialogue

The framing of the wider region as Indo-Pacific (as opposed to Asia-Pacific) by the US and its allies has been an important feature of the new geopolitics of the Pacific.

“From the US point of view, it is about developing a maritime counterweight to a more powerful China; bringing together the major democracies in the Indian and Pacific Oceans – India, Japan, Australia and US,” Dr Tarte said.

Australia announced in 2017 its major new political, economic and security investments in the region.

Much of this is being driven by concerns about China’s role and influence in the region.

“Prior to this, Australia had not seemed overly concerned about China’s presence in the region and had sought to calm US anxieties about China. But this has changed dramatically in the past two years,” she saud.

In 2018, there was heightened controversy in Australia about a Chinese built wharf in Vanuatu – allegations that China had plans to convert this into a naval base.

This underscores one of the main concerns of Australia in the region: it is not only that Chinese aid and related activities will undermine Australia’s own position of influence in the region – as the so-called partner of choice.

It is also concerned that the aid and particularly infrastructure projects might constitute dual use investments, useful for both commercial and strategic goals.

“We have also seen allegations (mostly unfounded) of so-called debt trap diplomacy by China here in the region. While debt is a problem – and appears to be growing, it is not debt to China that is a concern,” she said.

In terms of Australia’s economic investment, at the APEC meeting in 2018 in Port Moresby, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific.

New Zealand have also launched its own ‘reset’ in 2018.This includes a boost in aid and diplomatic presence in the region.

Similarly other partners, like Japan, France and Britain, have stepped up or signalled their intention to step up their presence in the region.

The Asian Development Bank has also increased its engagement with the region and investments in infrastructure.

Dr Tarte said the increasing urgency to achieve meaningful action on climate change has also motivated regional leaders to take a more assertive role on the global stage and in their dealings with bilateral partners.

Leaders like Tony de Brum, Anote Tong, Enele Sopoaga, Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister Tuileapa and Hilda Heine have been more vocal and open on the international scene as they raise the Pacific Voice.

“What this has meant is a more assertive, confident, independent and innovative diplomacy by Pacific states – increasingly willing to push back on initiatives emanating from our foreign development partners (eg Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy – now downgraded to Vision); and willing to leverage their combined political, economic and moral weight to influence international and regional arrangements (especially on climate and oceans),” Dr Tarte said.

“This has found expression through the Blue Pacific narrative and identity (launched in 2017). It is also evident in the new found assertiveness of the Pacific Islands Forum leadership in advocating for the interests of the Pacific; and in reminding partners of the region’s own collective ambition to chart its own course.”

The discussions around the geopolitics shift in the region could come to the fore again as Pacific Economics Ministers meet tomorrow and Thursday at the Forum Economics Ministers’ Meeting (FEMM) here at the Forum Secretariat in Nasese, Suva.

Regional journalists have joined their Fiji counterparts in providing coverage the event.

(Iliesa Tora’s participation at FEMM2018 has been made possible by PACMAS and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat).

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