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Putting the ‘Pacific’ into Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy

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Fiji's Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the end of their joint news conference at Abe's official residence in Tokyo 19 May 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

In Brief

In the face of North Korea’s nuclear program, a resurgent China, an unpredictable US president and the rise of anti-globalisation forces, Japan’s new Indo-Pacific strategy aims to improve connectivity between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and between the African and Asian continents. Tokyo intends for ‘Indo-Pacific’ to supersede ‘Asia Pacific’ as the term that describes its region.


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The overarching aim of the strategy is to build communications infrastructure, to establish free trade agreements and to develop so-called ‘strategic collaboration’, specifically with India, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asian countries. Absent from this strategy so far is any reference to the Pacific islands.

Avenues for ‘strategic collaboration’ between Japan and the Pacific islands already exist. Key among these is the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM), which has been held every three years in Japan since 1997. PALM brings together Japan’s prime minister, the leaders of 14 Pacific island states and ministerial-level representation from Australia and New Zealand. The PALM process now also boasts an intersessional foreign ministers’ meeting, which was introduced in 2010 and there are bilateral leaders’ meetings on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly. These complement the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) dialogue meetings, in which Japan has participated since 1989.

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

While the Pacific island 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 rules on issues such as ocean management and climate change. Pacific island states 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.

This new-found confidence has in part been facilitated by the rising regional influence of China and other non-Western states, which provides 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 among the Pacific Islands of the importance of being more active and independent participants in regional and global processes in order to further their diplomatic and development aspirations.

The next PALM summit, which is scheduled for May 2018, provides Japan with an important opportunity to recalibrate and strengthen its relationship with Pacific island states. Recent PALM summits have been overshadowed by the politics of inclusion–exclusion and by 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 initially including Fiji at the PALM summit of that year before issuing a last-minute invitation to Fiji’s foreign minister (who subsequently declined). Fiji was at that time suspended from the PIF due to its failure to hold elections and return to parliamentary rule.

This decision led to a marked cooling of relations between Fiji and Japan at a time when Fiji was actively courting (and being courted by) non-traditional friends including 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 signals a deepening relationship that will boost trade and tourism links.

In the lead-up to the 2018 PALM, Japan is grappling with another conundrum: whether to invite French Polynesia and New Caledonia, which are two non-self-governing French territories that became full members of the PIF in 2016. The PIF’s inclusion of these territories was a somewhat surprising move given the desire of Pacific island states to control the regional agenda. While the decision does now formalise the two territories’ longstanding association with the PIF, their inclusion ‘amplifies’ the influence of France over regional decision-making, since France retains (for now) control over the territories’ defence, foreign affairs, justice and monetary policy.

Japan needs to determine whether PALM is a Japan–PIF meeting or a Japan–Pacific island leaders meeting and whether it is in Japan’s interests to be flexible and inclusive  by expanding PALM’s membership, as it seems the PIF leaders have been by expanding theirs. 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. Whatever the decision taken, Japan should not this time leave the announcement to the last minute.

Sandra Tarte is Head of the School of Government, Development and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific.

One response to “Putting the ‘Pacific’ into Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy”

  1. These Pacific Island nations, as well as non self governing territories, are the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. Thus, Japan and other countries in the Indo Pacific should include them in any and all meetings about commerce, trade, and security.

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