ASEAN’s operation offers a guide to Pacific nations

22 August 2022

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The Pacific can learn from the challenges ASEAN faces as it feels the heat from increasing competition between China and the United States in the region.

Name the region: a group of diverse states, lying across strategically significant maritime passages. Their cultures and political systems have been profoundly shaped by colonialism and conflict, and they now seek to overcome chronic development challenges by partnering with major economic powers, while avoiding becoming pawns in their geopolitical competition.

If you guessed either the Pacific or South-East Asia, you’d be right.

Parallels can be drawn between both regions. Pacific experts Anna Powles and Joanna Wallis suggested that the Pacific Islands Forum, held recently in Fiji to shore up regionalism, might want to look to its South-East Asian counterpart, ASEAN, for inspiration on how to act as both a buffer and a bulwark in the face of geopolitical rivalry.

Countries could join Pacific Island Forum members in a dialogue on security issues, similar to that of the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Critics may scoff at ASEAN’s importance, but its centrality – the idea that the group is the foundation of the regional political and security architecture – has the effect of binding external stakeholders into one modus operandi. To a large extent, the rhetoric creates its own reality.

Certainly, the building blocks of Pacific regionalism – the member states – are not as strong overall as in South-East Asia. Immense development challenges mean they must engage with outside partners who can deliver the infrastructure needed to kickstart revenue-raising industries such as mining and tourism.

China is the main partner in the region, a presence that Australia and other stakeholders will have to learn to live with.

The Pacific can learn from the challenges ASEAN faces as it feels the heat from increasing competition between China and the United States in the region. On the South China Sea, ASEAN’s ability to mount a unified response to Chinese behaviour that undermines some members’ security and sovereignty has been impeded by others more closely aligned with Beijing.

This lesson is surely key for Pacific stakeholders, who are working to build unity before any divisions on China become too entrenched. Expanding existing instruments such as the Treaty of Rarotonga could be key. The treaty, which formalises a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Pacific, could be strengthened to enshrine more general commitments to non-alignment and the region’s opposition to militarisation.

Western nations worry that growing Chinese aid and investment is a vector for Beijing’s influence. No doubt it is. But realistically, Western governments are limited in what they can do to caution Pacific nations about Beijing, while still appearing to have their development interests in mind.

Those who know the Pacific well would certainly say it’s a waste of diplomatic capital trying to lean on Pacific governments to deter them from expanding commercial and aid relationships with China.

Instead, a better option is to equip Pacific governments and civil society with the tools to ensure that engagement with China is conducted on terms that maximise economic benefits for Pacific economies, while mitigating local sovereignty and environmental impacts. Across the Indo-Pacific, the stakes for democracy, and the role democratic values play in determining engagement with China, aren’t as clear-cut as the “arc of autocracies” rhetoric would have it. But the South Pacific is one place where healthy democratic systems will probably be a bulwark against the excesses of Chinese investors’ and state bodies’ behaviour.

The best show of solidarity with Pacific Island societies that Australia, New Zealand, the United States or Japan can make is a redoubling of support for building robust governance standards, resilient civil societies and independent media across the region. Building local skills and capacity, through greater access to higher education and labour markets, is also key.

In doing so, it will be important for Western powers to maintain respect for Pacific leadership in consolidating the norms and institutions to strengthen Pacific regionalism – even if that means accepting a role for China as a stakeholder if the region wants it. One issue Powles and Wallis raise is that mechanisms such as the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, designed to increase co-operation between the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Japan, risks sidelining or duplicating regional solutions out of a desire to write China out.

There are analogies with the Quad, which critics say undercuts its members’ rhetorical commitments to ASEAN centrality. With Pacific regionalism still inchoate, all parties have much to learn about what to avoid and what to pursue from comparison to the decades-long experiment in regionalism to the Pacific’s north-west.

Liam Gammon is Research Fellow in the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and an editor at East Asia Forum in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Liam Gammon is a research scholar in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

This article was first published on The Australian Financial Review.

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