July 21, 2022
KUALA LUMPUR – Better opportunities will arise from ASEAN and Pacific island nations banding together.
An opportunity has arisen. For small and middle powers, increasingly uncertain and aggressive geosecurity has provided a chance to influence global developments. For the Pacific Islands, their time in the sun may have just begun, and they could look to other regions of the world for clues on how to play their hand.
Engaging with great and regional powers remains inevitable. They hold influential positions in global institutions and have the capacity to assist others to attain their respective goals.
China has become a legitimate challenger to America’s influence in the Pacific. No longer just east and west, a multipolar world order is emerging as a result of growing power parity between the major powers. A more cautious approach towards international politics may ensue as major powers attempt to avoid costly entanglements. Direct interventions such as those we had seen in the 1990s and early 2000s such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan may be a thing of the past.
But the negotiating leverage appears today to be shifting in the favour of small and middle powers. As exemplified in the Ukraine crisis, small and middle powers may need to learn to be less dependent on great and regional powers. This could result in them becoming more independent in their actions. Empowerment (sometimes not by choice) seems the order of the day. This perhaps best explains the rise in minilateral frameworks led by middle powers.
It may also be time for small and middle powers in both Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Pacific Island nations to consider forging and championing their own ideas and visions for the Indo-Pacific. Already, ASEAN is an observer in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Likewise, PIF and ASEAN are present at Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation.
As maritime nations, all of them have an interest and duty to ensure that the new regional architecture that emerges to manage the Indo-Pacific caters for their concerns, which are no less real or relevant to those of the great and regional powers.
Interest in the Pacific Islands has intensified in recent weeks. An area that has previously been described as a ‘diplomatic backwater’ has now seen the visits of not one but two foreign ministers of regional powers – China and Australia.
China’s Foreign Minister visit to the South Pacific was meant to further cement ties with a multilateral pact on security and development. This did not materialise. And at a time when the US had managed to get 12 other members to begin talks on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework on Prosperity (IPEF), this might be viewed by some quarters as a failure of sorts. The IPEF is an economic initiative led by the US which aims to strengthen economic relations with its partners in the Indo-Pacific.
However China’s success in securing a security pact with the Solomon Islands is an indication that China is making inroads. Recently, the Australian government sent their foreign minister to make a similar round of visits, predictably to stem the growing influence of China in this sub-region.
The recent episode has highlighted that while the Pacific Islands states may welcome greater engagement with China, they do not fancy the baggage that comes along with it – great power competition.
It’s a dilemma not unique to this region. Other regions including Southeast Asia have long struggled to keep themselves free from such contests. The regions could learn from each other, for example, in how to balance bringing much-needed development through external engagements against keeping at bay the negatives.
Like the Pacific Islands today, Southeast Asian countries attracted much attention during that last great power contest – the Cold War. As the US and Soviet Union vyed for supremacy on the global stage, it was in small theatres like Southeast Asia and Europe where the contest was played out. Freeing themselves from these machinations encouraged some Southeast Asian countries to establish ASEAN.
While there are mixed views on the effectiveness of ASEAN as a tempering agent, its longevity and ability to shape the regional architecture in east Asia seem to indicate the opposite. Even today, as a new great power competition engulfs the Indo-Pacific region, ASEAN still manages to get a seat at the table; much of it due to its centrality in these developments, but also because it lends some legitimacy to the efforts of the protagonists.
In the pursuit of their respective interests, the US and China may be tempted to divide in order to rule, thus, adding impetus for these regions to draw closer. Both ASEAN and the PIF offer good platforms to do just that, by strengthening economic ties and enhancing co-operation to address specific local concerns.
Both regional groups can further improve inter-regional co-operation since they share many common concerns, such as maintaining regional peace and harmony, creating a sustainable and inclusive economy, and climate change.
Co-operation is important among these developing nations as they lack the capacity to address the issues alone. Climate change is naturally a pressing concern for many, especially those dependent on primary industries to drive their economies. Certainly, climate change poses an additional existential threat to many communities in the Pacific.
In the area of economics, these are relatively small economies that require a stable and open environment that will allow them to grow beyond what their domestic market permits; international economic co-operation thus becomes a necessity not an option.
Many of these countries are also maritime nations, making it imperative to secure freedom of navigation; and making them more likely to defend the existing rules-based order.
Can they be effective together? If there is an opportune time to prove it, it is now.
Peter Brian M. Wang is currently with the National Institute of Public Administration and is working on his PhD at the Asia–Europe Institute University of Malaya.