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Challenges and Opportunities for Japan’s Pacific Island Diplomacy

By Sandra Tarte
March 01, 2018

In 2017, Japan confronted a number of significant challenges at the global and regional levels. These include what has been described in Japan as ‘an increasingly severe security environment’, referring to the North Korean nuclear and missile developments. Other challenges are coming from a resurgent China, from an unpredictable US President, and from the rise of anti-globalization and populist forces around the world. In the face of these challenges, it is deemed essential for Japan to shore up the liberal, rules-based international order, by building or strengthening partnerships with those regions (and groupings) that share that goal.

Against this background, a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific strategy’ is being articulated and advanced by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), aimed at ‘improving connectivity’ between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the African and Asian continents. The Indo-Pacific is described as the ‘new vocabulary’ replacing the Asia Pacific. Although in its early stages of development, this strategy aims to focus on building communications infrastructure, free trade agreements and so-called ‘strategic collaboration’, specifically with India, the US, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asian countries. Absent from this strategy, at this stage, is reference to the Pacific islands.

Avenues for ‘strategic collaboration’ between Japan and the Pacific islands already exist. Key among these is the PALM Summits held every three years in Japan since 1997, between Japan’s prime minister and the leaders of 14 Pacific island states. The PALM summits are Tokyo’s signature event in its Pacific islands foreign policy. They normally bring together the Japanese and Pacific islands heads of government, plus ministerial level representation from Australia and New Zealand. The PALM process now also boasts an intersessional Foreign Ministers meeting, introduced in 2010. In addition there are bilateral leaders’ meetings on the side lines of the UN General Assembly. These complement the annual Pacific Islands Forum Dialogue meetings, which Japan has engaged in since 1989.

But if Japan is to build this relationship into a ‘strategic collaboration’, beyond the political and economic cooperation that currently exists, it will need to accommodate a new assertiveness in Pacific island diplomacy and navigate a more fluid regional order.

While the Pacific islands region remains generally wedded to a rules-based international order, there is now a greater effort on the part of Pacific island states to shape those rules – such as on oceans and climate change, reflected in Fiji’s presidency of COP23. They are also asserting more political control over the Pacific regionalism agenda, which has in the past been subject to ‘undue influence’ of donors and metropolitan states. The discourse of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism echoes that of the Pacific Islands Development Forum and the Parties to the Nauru Agreement in ‘emphasizing that the regional agenda must be determined by Pacific people themselves’.

This new found confidence has in part been facilitated by the rising influence in the region of China and other non-Western states – providing opportunities for alternative development and diplomatic partnerships. But apart from China, the donor profile in the region remains much the same. What has changed is the attitude of Pacific leaders as to how they should engage in regional and global diplomacy: the so-called ‘paradigm shift’. There is now recognition in the Pacific of the importance of being more active and independent participants in regional and global processes. There are also now greater opportunities for Pacific island states to influence outcomes to further their diplomatic and development aspirations.

The next PALM summit, scheduled for May 2018, provides Japan with an important opportunity to recalibrate and strengthen its relationship with the Pacific islands (who account for 12 votes at the United Nations). Recent PALM summits have been overshadowed by the politics of inclusion/exclusion and a general perception that there is not sufficient follow through from one summit to the next.

In 2012, Japan caused a serious rift by not including Fiji at the PALM summit of that year – issuing instead a last-minute invitation to the Foreign Minister (who subsequently declined). Fiji was at that time suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum due to its failure to hold elections and return to parliamentary rule (after the coup of 2006). This suspension was largely the rationale for excluding Fiji. However this decision led to a marked cooling of relations between Fiji and Japan. This was at a time when Fiji was actively courting (and being courted by) non-traditional friends. They include China, Russia, India, Indonesia and some Arab states. Relations with Fiji are now back on track and the announced resumption of direct flights between Fiji and Japan in December 2017 by Fiji Airways signals a deepening relationship (boosting trade and tourism links).

In the lead-up to the 2018 Summit, Japan is grappling with another conundrum: whether to invite French Polynesia and New Caledonia, two non-self-governing French territories which, in 2016, became full members of the Pacific Islands Forum. This was a somewhat surprising move, given the desire of Pacific island states to control the regional agenda. While formalizing their longstanding association with the Pacific Islands Forum, inclusion of New Caledonia and French Polynesia ‘amplifies’ the influence of France over regional decision-making since France retains (for now) control over their defense, foreign affairs, justice and monetary policy (so-called regalian powers).

At one level, the issue for Japan rests on a determination of whether PALM is a Japan-Pacific Islands Forum meeting or a Japan-Pacific island leaders meeting. At another level, the question rests on whether it is in Japan’s interests to be flexible and inclusive, as it seems the Pacific Islands Forum leaders have been. If there are any lessons to be learnt from the recent past, it is the importance of keeping in mind the implications, for Japan, of the Pacific’s evolving regional order. And, whatever the decision taken, not leaving the announcement to the last minute.

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