The seas are rising on Pacific islands nations – but so is their powerful resistance | Ellen Fanning

Let’s face it, Australia has been an awfully bad neighbour in the Pacific for some while now.

Not a shouting-at-the-people-next-door, finger-pointing, vengeful kind of neighbour. Rather the sort that blithely parties all night, heedless of the family next door knocking insistently on the door at all hours, trying to make themselves heard over the loud music and laughter inside.

Had we been attentive to those Pacific voices, we would have heard the quiet fury in the baritone voice of Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama when he warned us, “Here is Fiji, climate change is no laughing matter” – a reference to a 2015 incident in which now opposition leader Peter Dutton was caught on a hot microphone, joking about the fate of Pacific islands nations in the face of global heating.

Four years later, prime minister Scott Morrison’s behaviour at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu “stunned” that nation’s PM and then chairman of the PIF, Enele Sopoaga. Morrison, he said, had basically told regional leaders to “take the money and shut up about climate change”.

Tensions over climate change were reportedly so “fierce” at times, the Tongan prime minister was reduced to tears. The Australian delegation insisted the forum water down its final communique and climate change statement to remove all references to coal, limiting global warming to below 1.5C and to setting out a plan for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Then deputy prime minister and Nationals party leader Michael McCormack compounded the insult when he proclaimed Pacific islands nations affected by the climate crisis will continue to survive “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit”. He later apologised.

A few months later, of course, Australia experienced the black summer bushfires, scorching any pretence that the existential threat posed by climate change was confined to Pacific islands nations, many of which are just a few metres above sea level.

Had Australia been paying attention, we would have noticed a powerful resistance developing in the Pacific.

It culminated this week in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, launched at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva.

Pacific Islands Forum chairman and Fiji PM prime minister Frank Bainimarama attends the launch of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent in Suva on 14 July.
Pacific Islands Forum chairman and Fiji PM prime minister Frank Bainimarama attends the launch of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent in Suva on 14 July. Photograph: Reuters

The idea sprang from a writer and philosopher, the late Epeli Hau’ofa, in his 1994 essay Our Sea of Islands. What if the giant Pacific Ocean connected rather than disconnected island countries? What if these were not isolated, vulnerable atolls but large ocean states, interconnected in a vast region, connected by a mighty ocean that covers a third of the world’s surface? A sea of islands rather than islands in the sea?

Leading Pacific scholar Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka explains this optimistic reimagining of the region as a “Blue Pacific Continent” gave birth to an assertive new collective Pacific diplomacy, one which has empowered Pacific islands states to organise as a region and push back on the dominance of “metropolitan” power including China, Australia, the US, New Zealand, France and Britain.

As Kabutaulaka explained on ABC TV’s The Drum, the “Blue Pacificis also a narrative of responsibility, allowing – indeed requiring – Pacific leaders to assume a moral authority as leading global voices on climate change, given they belong to such a vast ocean continent.

So with China’s renewed ambitions in the region, it seems every major power is refocusing on the Pacific.

China comes with its “Belt and Road” ambitions, the US this week doubled down on its 2019 “Pacific Pledge” and talk of the “Indo-Pacific” region, tripling aid to the region and opening two new embassies. The previous Australian government came with its “Pacific Step” (while prime minister Albanese characterised it as a “Pacific Stuff-Up”). Aotearoa New Zealand has a “Pacific Reset”. Indonesia has a “Pacific Elevation”. The UK favours a Pacific “Tilt”. France its Indo-Pacific “Strategy” and so on.

US vice president Kamala Harris speaks via video link to the Pacific Islands Forum on 13 July and outlines greater US involvement in the region.
US vice president Kamala Harris addresses the Pacific Islands Forum via video link on 13 July and outlines greater US involvement in the region. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

In each case, says Kabutaulaka, major powers are mapping or framing narratives of the Pacific to suit their geopolitical aims.

“What we’ve seen since the 1800s and even before that, is people mapping their interests on the Pacific. Cartography is very important to colonialism. If you can map a place, you therefore can claim it. The countries that we know these days as Fiji or Vanuatu or Solomon Islands were places that were produced as a result of colonial cartography and then became nation states. And those nation states assumed a disconnection between the different countries.

“Now what we’ve seen in recent years is the place described as the Asia Pacific [where] the focus is mostly on the rim and the Pacific region within is often seen as what some scholars describe as ‘the hole in the donut’, that is, insignificant. More recently [it’s] this term Indo-Pacific in which the US in one utterance lays claim to a region that covers two huge oceans – the Pacific and the Indian Ocean – [as] their sphere of geopolitical influence.

“The ‘Blue Pacific’ is Pacific islanders pushing back on that.”

While the Pacific family will have to work hard to maintain solidarity in the face of major world powers jostling for influence in the region (see Kiribati’s decision to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum a week ago), the unifying, clarifying priority for all Pacific leaders is survival.

Dr George Carter, a research fellow in geopolitics and regionalism at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, explains “countries like Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga are no longer facing category five (severe tropical) cyclones once every 10 years, it’s once every two or three a years.”

Sea level rise already means salt water is oozing up through the ground in places such as Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, polluting the fresh water sources.

As former Kiribati president Anote Tong explained on The Drum this week, climate change is not some hypothetical future threat – his islands may not be habitable by 2060.

“I believe we should begin to prepare for migration,” he said. That is, migration of his nation’s entire population.

What Australians are beginning to understand is that while Canberra and Washington see Beijing as the major geopolitical threat to our region, for Pacific islands leaders the single greatest security threat is climate change. And as Solomon Islands has demonstrated, they will use their leverage as a flashpoint in geopolitical tensions.

As Tong explained simply: “The seas are coming for us.”