About us, without us? Some thoughts about Asia-Pacific Diplomacy in Transition

Debate on the Pacific region’s role in global geopolitics has deepened in 2018. The focus has turned to the Korean Peninsula, China-US relations, China-Pacific Island dynamics and what a shift to ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a descriptor means. Regional security cooperation, ongoing regional and trans-regional trade negotiations, have also formed a big part of the picture.

The annual Otago Foreign Policy School’s 2018 theme, “Asia-Pacific Diplomacy in Transition: Issues, Ideas and Institutions,” 29 June – 1 July, in Dunedin, was therefore both timely and intriguing in its chosen nomenclature: ‘Asia-Pacific’ rather than the increasingly familiar (but still opaque) ‘Indo-Pacific’. It was my first participation in the event, which is now in its 53rd year and is a key event in MFAT’s calendar for developing its annual intake of new diplomats. Attended by academics and practitioners from around the Pacific Rim in particular, I found the discussions insightful for two reasons: it increased my understanding of the trends in Asia-Pacific diplomacy, and gave a glimpse into MFAT’s own thinking.

Foreign Minister Rt Hon Winston Peters’ opening remarks set the scene[1], asserting that New Zealand’s foreign policy will focus on “rules, relationships, regional architecture, and diversification” and will protect its reputation as an “honest broker” in a contested Asia-Pacific region. He reaffirmed that New Zealand “will do what is right in the Pacific in a pragmatic way – avoiding the pitfalls of both dreamy ivory tower idealism and zero sum power politics.”

The Asia-Pacific region: are we talking about the same area?

As a practitioner from the Pacific islands dealing with ‘Pacific’ aspects of Asia-Pacific diplomacy, I’ve observed a wide variance in how organisations working in the region think about the Pacific region. The United Nations’ preferred geographic grouping, ‘Asia-Pacific’, is very broad, and stretches from Afghanistan to the US. The Pacific Islands Forum—the Pacific’s apex political body—focuses on links between Island countries and Asian states from India to Japan and the Philippines. For MFAT, the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ takes as its focal point the Pacific Rim countries, and seems to be principally concerned with locating New Zealand within the economic architectures of ASEAN and APEC. Foreign Minister Peters reaffirmed New Zealand’s support for ASEAN centrality to Asia-Pacific architecture.

So, what does this mean for discussions between the Pacific and NZ about Asia-Pacific? MFAT has well-established diplomatic relations with the Pacific, and the ‘Pacific Reset’ amplifies this. Institutionally, however, MFAT’s Pacific relations reside in a division that is distinct and separate from Asia-related divisions[2]. This is not unusual: many foreign ministries around the region are structured this way. Recently, however, many Pacific island states have begun to engage much more in Asia-Pacific political dialogue. What does MFAT’s structure entail for this shift, particularly when NZ has long been considered a key Pacific island ally?

Where and how does the Pacific engage in Asia-Pacific?

In discussions initiated by Pacific Rim countries about the shifting geopolitical and security context of the Pacific, Pacific islands states are often downplayed, and sometimes not considered at all. Recent Australian media coverage of Australia-China-Pacific islands relations have led some Pacific academics[3]—and leaders—to point out that Pacific island states are uncomfortable being relegated to the status of pawns in a power play-off by larger states. They demand that the agency of Pacific states in regional politics be acknowledged and respected. In early June, US, Australian and NZ officials had a trilateral meeting to discuss Pacific regional security cooperation[4], apparently building on earlier discussions with Pacific island governments, although public information on this is scant.

It was only last year in September 2017 that the Pacific Islands Forum advanced a new political definition of the region—‘the Blue Pacific’—and called for collective action shaped around a common identity and destiny. The Blue Pacific envisions Island nations working with allies and partners near and far to address the development, political and security interests of the Pacific Islands. So, what might this mean in practice, and particularly in relation to Asia-Pacific diplomacy? It’s been said recently that “the Pacific matters[5]” in regional diplomacy, but for this to be manifested, Pacific engagement within Asia-Pacific diplomatic affairs must be ensured, visible and active.

Through trade, diplomacy and human mobility, and cross-border investment, Asia and the Pacific already have multiple bilateral, regional and multilateral channels for engagement. Through its Dialogue Partners[6], the Pacific Islands Forum engages in a number of bilateral summitries with a handful of East Asian States (China, Japan, Korea) to hammer out specific deals. Additionally, the Forum’s member states are also active participants in the Tuna Commission, which also includes many Asian Dialogue partners. Through the United Nations’ regional commission, ESCAP, Pacific states also have the space for building cooperation with Asian states to advance the vision of the Blue Pacific. All of these are mostly formal intergovernmental channels.

However, foreign ministries in the Pacific islands are constrained by operational challenges—they typically have small administrations, overstretched resources and lack continuity of institutional knowledge. As Pacific participation in intergovernmental processes widens regionally and internationally, Pacific island diplomatic efforts are increasingly stretched.

How can Pacific diplomacy be more effective?

The Foreign Policy School highlighted the fundamental importance of “turning up” to both build trust and be strategic within Asian-Pacific diplomacy; if you’re present, you can influence. I would add that “being well-informed and armed with knowledge” is key for effective diplomacy. On this latter point, Pacific island governments have a well-established arrangement through the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP) to provide technical expertise to inform and support regional diplomatic efforts. This has been especially effective in multilateral climate change and environment discussions, and continues to serve Pacific island countries well.

However, we know Asia-Pacific diplomacy is presently in a stage of transition. We know that political relations are rapidly evolving. We therefore also understand that there has never been a greater need for incisive political analysis to be readily available to overstretched Pacific island foreign ministries.

A swift and agile Pacific diplomatic effort is needed to secure Pacific island interests within a transitioning Asia-Pacific region. While the CROP agencies, and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in particular, can provide political insights for Pacific foreign ministries specific to sectoral areas, there remains a wider body of academic research on Asia-Pacific cooperation challenges and opportunities which are going largely untapped. Greater effort is needed to link academic sources of objective political analysis of Asia-Pacific relations with Pacific island diplomats.

The 2018 Foreign Policy School concluded with a challenge directed at MFAT’s new diplomats: as Asia-Pacific diplomacy evolves, how will New Zealand leverage its self-identity as both a Pacific country and an Asia-Pacific country? And as a country committed to the Pacific islands region, how can it ensure Pacific agency in this context? I look forward to seeing the answer in future Asia-Pacific diplomacy.

Anna Naupa

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and should not necessarily be considered as reflecting the views or carrying the endorsement of any government, organization or group.

[1] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12080455 A copy of Peters’ speech is included.

[2] https://www.mfat.govt.nz/en/countries-and-regions/

[3] See: Wesley Morgan USP 2018 https://www.usp.ac.fj/fileadmin/files/faculties/business/SGDIA/SGDIA_WORKING_PAPER_SERIES_-_No._5_-_Complete.pdf and Bal Kama April 2018 http://www.devpolicy.org/factoring-the-pacific-into-australias-approach-to-china-20180412/

[4] https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/06/283056.htm

[5] http://www.devpolicy.org/why-the-pacific-matters-20180605/

[6] https://www.forumsec.org/dialogue-partners/