ISABELLA BROWN AND TESS NEWTON CAIN |
The Pacific Leaders Meeting (PALM) is a summit-level meeting that began in 1997 and has been held every three years since. PALM is led by Japan in conjunction with a number of Pacific island countries (PICs): Australia, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
PALM was inspired by the first Japanese commitment to PICs in 1987 which provided the building for PALM which has become a platform for Japan to develop and sustain strategic relationships in the Pacific. There are several reasons that these ties are important for Japan. First, Japan considers itself to be a neighbour across the Pacific Ocean. Japan looks to PICs as for support in international arenas, such as the United Nations. Secondly, they hold deep historic ties that in the present day are as prominent as ever as they rebuild their relationship after World War II. Thirdly, PICs have resources that Japan relies on heavily. They include marine products (especially tuna), fuel, and timber resources. Lastly, PICs provide Japan with vital trade routes.
Japan has supported security, aid, and stability within the Pacific region consistently for the past 50 years. PALM was founded on four pillars. They are self-determination, economic self-reliance, cooperation through aid and lastly, cooperation in international forums. After twenty years of PALM these four initial pillars can still be seen in the 9th PALM’s initiatives. Evidently, there is still a strong focus on economic development and sustainability. However, since PALM began there have been changes to the areas of focus. For instance, climate change and disaster resilience have become an intrinsic focus of PALM reflecting the importance of these issues in a Pacific context.
PALM also includes funding commitments made by Japan to support development initiatives in the region. PALM is imperative for Japan to openly discuss with PICs how aid can help support these nations. During the 20 plus years of PALM Japan’s aid commitment has expanded drastically, growing from $239,122.50 USD in 2000 to $460 million USD in 2018Overall, Japan is the third largest donor in the region. In 2019 Japan had spent $2.44 Billion USD in aid to the region, including specific PALM focused economic and social initiatives brought to fruition.
Another important aspect of PALM is the specific focus on disasters in the region and how they shape initiatives that are developed through this mechanism. For example, the third PALM focused on implementing better health training and safety after the outbreak of SARS and sexual education training due to the outbreak of AIDS/HIV in the region. Later, the seventh PALM focused on disaster risk reduction and response further to the 2011 Japanese earthquake. Recently, the ninth PALM held in 2021 once again has revived PALM’s interest in health and sanitation after the COVID-19 crisis. This crisis has seen Japan dedicated to ensuring PICs are vaccinated and have appropriate PPE to protect themselves against the virus.
The PALM mechanism can also be a location for friction between Japan and Pacific countries. In 2021, before the 9th PALM was held, Japan announced they would begin releasing treated nuclear water discharge leftover from the 2011 earthquake into the Pacific Ocean by 2023. This decision was met with significant backlash from PICs as this would go against the sustainability and climate change regulations set in previous PALMs. Pacific officials succeeded in getting this issue onto the agenda for PALM 9 and it has been a focus for ongoing attention since then. The Pacific Islands Forum has secured a committee of international experts to provide an independent assessment of the likely impacts of the discharge, should it go ahead. This issue was also a feature of the recent visit of Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hon. Yoshimasa Hayashi to Fiji. In a meeting with the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Mr Henry Puna, the SG stressed the need for Japan to work in an open and transparent manner on this issue. It is another reminder of the significance of the Pacific’s nuclear legacy which continues to inform how Pacific island countries engage in foreign policy discussions with powers such as Japan.
PALM has previously been something of a low-level meeting that does not often attract much attention. However, given the increased geopolitical focus on the Pacific islands region more recently, it is likely to become more significant for Japan, and for the countries of the Pacific.
Isabella Brown is currently an intern at the Griffith Asia Institute. She is studying a Masters of International Relations.
Tess Newton Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and project lead of the Pacific Hub.