The Japan Forum on International Relations

Oceania has attracted much attention in recent years as a battleground where Western nations scramble to deter the rise of China, with both sides vying to win over the island countries in the Pacific region. However, China’s rise is not the only factor that has brought about change to the regional order of in Oceania, although it is certainly a major one. This article focuses on the “internal logic”, or interests, of the Pacific Island Countries, and clarifies how regional order has been transformed from the perspective of the Pacific Island Countries themselves.

Since the end of World War II, the regional order in Oceania has been based on a close relationship between the ANZUS states (Australia, New Zealand, and the United States), which were the former colonial powers, and the decolonized Pacific Island Countries. Under such situation, the Pacific Island Countries set up the South Pacific Forum (now the Pacific Islands Forum) in 1971 and launched regional cooperation via the South Pacific Forum, inviting Australia and New Zealand as members. The South Pacific Forum engaged in diplomatic activities focusing on common concerns for the region, such as the nuclear issue that led to the establishment of the forum. In this way, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Island Countries came to share a concept that the South Pacific was a region as a political unit composed of nations held together by common concerns as they jointly engage in diplomacy toward external actors.

In the 1990s, however, a serious rift developed between Australia and New Zealand on one side and the Pacific Island Countries on the other, over the issue of climate change. Pacific Island Countries, for which climate change was, and remains, a pressing concern given its enormous impact, were sharply at odds with Australia and New Zealand, which emitted greenhouse gases. The contention between the two sides heightened at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations.

The Pacific Island Countries recognized that it would be difficult to pursue joint diplomacy on climate change with Australia and New Zealand through the Pacific Islands Forum. Since then, they have tried diversify their diplomatic channels. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is an example of such diplomatic channel for the Pacific Island Countries. In addition, frameworks other than the Pacific Islands Forum have also emerged in the region, such as that of the Pacific Islands Development Forum, which focuses on Pacific Island Countries and excludes both Australia and New Zealand.

Thus, the internal rift between the Pacific island countries Island Countries and Australia and New Zealand over climate change has led to the dissipation of the above-mentioned South Pacific regional concept and has diminished the significance of the Pacific Islands Forum. Then came the rise of China, an external factor, which has contributed to the transformation of regional order in Oceania as well. China’s rise may loom large when the Pacific is viewed from the perspective of the ANZUS states. However, when the Pacific is viewed from the perspective of the Pacific itself, transformation of regional order will appear with more complicated facets.