Wanted: a strategic dialogue with Pacific island countries

Authors: Kaitu’u ‘i Pangai Funaki and Yoichiro Sato

CAN Japan count on the Pacific islands countries (PICs) to support its regional strategy.

The short answer is, it is doubtful. The PICs perceive themselves as being in a one-way relationship wherein Japan exists to assist the PICs with their limitations. Trust in the PICs is based on expression of generosity understood as not only what one receives from a relationship, but also on what one gives back to it. Consequently, in its current form the relationship between Japan and the PICs is not structured to engender trust.

Moreover, the PICs have a shared foreign policy of ‘friends to all and enemy to none’, and supporting Japan may place the PICs in the role of ‘enemy’ to other countries. These limitations notwithstanding, Japan and the PICs must work together to coordinate their approaches to important regional issues, such as how to deal with the rise of China and North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

PIC perceptions of their relationship with Japan as being unidirectional are long-standing. Japan took the initiative to develop its relationship with the PICs as a group through the establishment of the summit-level Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) in 1997.

PALM — whose members include Japan, Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu — has come to be considered the main venue for Japan to hold dialogue with leaders of the PICs. However, during these meetings Japan and the PICs both appear unsure of how best to enhance their relationship as partners despite including ‘we are islanders’ in the PALM theme for the past three meetings.

Japan’s propensity for informing the PICs of policies impacting or involving them, rather than co-creating such policies, inhibits the development of trust. For example, Japan did not partner with the PICs during development of its new ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ (FOIPS), regarding how the PICs could contribute to this strategy. Instead, Japan informed them of their involvement for the first time only two months before PALM 8, at which Japan sought their cooperation with the policy.

During PALM 8, the Japanese government declared FOIPS as the cornerstone of its foreign relations with the PICs in regard to the development of human and non-human infrastructure. This infrastructure was intended to strengthen the capacity of the PICs to keep the oceans and seas of the Indo-Pacific region free and governed by international law.

Nonetheless, despite FOIPS directly referencing the Pacific people as guardians of the ocean through their Pacific Ocean identity, the PIC leaders were insufficiently consulted on what they had to contribute toward being guardians of the Pacific. The process generated an insufficient sense of reciprocity in the relationship between Japan and the PICs. Consequently, PIC leaders evinced doubt regarding Japan’s intentions behind FOIPS as well as the rationale behind the definition of a ‘Free and Open Pacific’.

Furthermore, the PIC leaders typically sign agreements for the overseas development aid promised to them by Japan before and during PALM. By requesting PIC cooperation with the pre-determined FOIPS at the same time that it issued ODA agreements, Japan created an environment of distrust.

PIC leaders were concerned that their responses regarding FOIPS would potentially impact the value of the ODA projects Japan was prepared to offer them. This disjuncture at the strategic level is all the more regrettable, given the much better reception of Japan’s aid per se among the PICs — a product of coordinated requests by the PICs.

Some aspects of the FOIPS are no doubt aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing influence in the Pacific. It would be a mistake on the part of Japan not to openly communicate this point.

The fact that several PICs are already heavily indebted by China to the point of endangering their autonomy, despite having long-standing partnerships with Japan, is indicative of overly focusing on the coordination of economic interests at the neglect of strategic discussions.

Japan also sought PIC support in enforcing sanctions against North Korea in Paragraph 47 of the PALM 8 declaration. Japan’s push was a direct reaction to the suspected involvement of the North Korean dummy companies registered in Samoa and Marshall Islands in ship-to-ship transferring of illicit cargo at sea and the reflagging of a suspected North Korean ship in Palau, both in order to evade United Nations sanctions.

As members of the international community, the PICs should already be supporting existing sanctions against North Korea. However, they have not yet risen to their responsibility in this regard due first to their lack of expertise and ignorance but also to the strength of their cultural imperative of being an ‘enemy to none’.

This cultural imperative unfortunately conceals the undercurrent lure of easy money from registering North Korean ships and companies. PIC leaders will require strong motivation to break with established practice; experiencing a sense of reciprocity in their relationship with Japan could serve as such a motivation. The manner in which Japan presented its agenda at PALM 8 with a short notice publicly shamed some PIC leaders and failed to foster a sense of ownership of the agenda among others.

The current form of Japan’s relationship with the PICs does not include reciprocity and thus compromises the PICs’ sense of self-respect. This self-respect can be restored doubly, first through adding reciprocity into the Japanese-PIC relationship, and second through the PICs accepting and acting on their obligations to take a stance and align themselves with other members of the international community.

However, if Japan were to shift to becoming more of an equal partner in its relationship with the PICs and utilize PALM to support the PICs in identifying and rectifying the islands’ own needs, then this approach would lead to the PICs being more open to supporting Japan in its actions in return.

The threat Japan feels from North Korea may not be considered by the PICs to be of direct concern to them. Nevertheless, giving the PICs the option to provide their support to Japan on this and similar issues of major concern would allow them the opportunity to express generosity toward Japan by publicly supporting it on the global stage. Such generosity would reciprocate the support received from Japan, keeping the relationship balanced while fostering unity within the Japanese-PIC relationship. Moreover, the opportunity to reciprocate to Japan will ensure continued dignity for the PICs as they rise to their responsibility and participate in coordinated international actions having value for the global community of nations.

This year, Japan will for the first time host a three-week-long seminar for capacity building against ship-to-ship transferring of illicit cargo, inviting maritime officers from 14 PICs to University of South Pacific in Fiji. Improved PIC capability to secure its sea will hopefully revive the dignity of the ‘guardians’ of the sea.

Kaitu’u ‘i Pangai Funaki, a researcher in Asia-Pacific studies, politics and international relations, is the founder of the Dignified Pacific Initiative. Yoichiro Sato is a professor of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU).

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