Boe's Club

The Pacific Islands Forum is done, and pols and pundits have been released from their cloistered confines on Nauru.

It was a busy week. Media were quick to highlight the Boe Declaration on security, probably the most significant piece of work to emerge from a Pacific island Forum since its predecessor, the Biketawa Declaration.

The Boe document is a significant reaffirmation of the principles that provided the mandate for the RAMSI intervention following civil unrest in Solomon Islands. This was a needful thing, in the minds of politicians and analysts in Canberra and Wellington. There is a growing realisation that they cannot stop China from making diplomatic inroads in the Pacific, but they might still be able to keep the inside track when it comes to security.

In order to achieve that, they proved remarkably—uncharacteristically—willing to listen to Pacific island nations’ ideas about what security actually means. Opening as it does with strong language emphasising the respect for good governance, individual rights under the law and democratic institutions, the declaration stakes its claim to legitimacy square in the heart of good old Western Values.

As others have observed, China tends to adhere to international forms without necessarily subscribing to its moral and ethical norms. This declaration achieves one of its goals in setting clear expectations concerning security norms in the Pacific.

The Pacific island states got what appears on the surface at least to be a pretty significant concession from Australia and (to a lesser degree) New Zealand with the ‘reaffirmation’ that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement”.

Australia reportedly tried to water this down at the eleventh hour. According to those who attended, Tuvalu Prime Minister and incoming Forum chair Enele Sopoaga had an amusingly coy exchange with reporters in which he admitted that one country had pushed back against the final wording. Asked which one, he declined to specify. Pressed repeatedly by reporters, he finally admitted that the country’s name began with the letter A.

Full credit to the Pacific leaders—and almost certainly to the New Zealand delegation, who could have pulled the decision either way—the language stayed.

The way security is defined is also a significant act of recognition of the needs of Pacific island states. It defines security broadly enough that khaki-clad personnel and boots on the ground are at the far end of a broad continuum of support options.

Entwining what Maryse Payne characterised as ‘stability, security and prosperity’ is an astute tactic for any nation seeking to solidify its position as a good friend to the Pacific. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include prosperity and state-building as core elements of development. That language was championed by small island state Timor Leste, with support from key allies in the developed world. It resonates equally loudly in the Pacific.

(Full disclosure: While I was not directly involved, my former employer was contracted by Timor Leste to lobby for these goals.)

But this broader definition could easily cut both ways. It might well offer a greater latitude for the Boe Declaration to be invoked. If, for example, an island nation were to be pressured to repay a debt, or to make concessions in lieu of payment, could Boe be used as the mechanism to allow a third party to intervene with a bailout package?

Also key to the agreement is language affirming “the importance of the rules-based international order founded on the UN Charter”. This is language that Australia regularly uses to characterise its place in the broad and loosening alliance of Western powers. There is little doubt that Pacific island countries will be reminded of the rules from time to time, when it suits the suits.

The real question, though—and the one that won’t become apparent until someone tries to use the Boe Declaration in earnest—is whether all the signatories are equally sincere about all of its provisions.

Australia has its clear win here. It will doubtless claim a mandate to engage much more closely with its Pacific neighbours to improve their own ability to resist outside meddling (and by outside, of course, we mean everybody else).

Cyber security is first in line. Officials lost no time in announcing the creation of a regional cybersecurity ‘fusion centre’ to address cybercrime issues in the Pacific. The concept of an all-in-one fusion centre was pioneered by the tiny, vulnerable Estonia, after they were on the receiving end of the first overt state-sponsored cyber-attack in history.

The applicability of this model to the Pacific is… debatable, once the pragmatic concerns are introduced. Sovereignty issues are certain to arise, as are simple logistics. Not every nation is on fibre-optic cable, and their capabilities can be modestly described as disparate.

There is little doubt that Australian largesse in providing facilities and personnel to ‘help’ backstop domestic efforts will be met with suspicion, for different reasons, by most Pacific leaders.

To put it bluntly: From a Pacific perspective, we seemed to be faced with Hobson’s Choice. We don’t get to choose whether we’ll be spied on; we only get to choose who does it. And Australia appears to be saying we can choose any colour horse, as long as it’s white.

That may indeed be the necessity. Most Pacific leaders would likely accept that they’re faced with a binary choice, at least where security is concerned. It doesn’t mean, though, that Boe’s club will be an easy one for Pacific islanders to be in.

And while membership may have its privileges for Australia, the question remains: Will it pay its dues? Climate change is now formally recognised as the primary security threat to the region. There is little evidence that a Morrison government actually believes this, and if it does believe, that it cares enough to discomfit its base.

China is at least partially sincere in its efforts to combat climate change. Australia has to do a great deal more to prove its own sincerity. Failure to act will could render this entire declaration moot.

Boe’s club strikes both ways.

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