It is now widely accepted that the 21st century will be a ‘Pacific Century’ for global geopolitics, with the Pacific Ocean providing the stage1. However, while the majority of the international relations discourse has analysed the strategies of powerful Pacific Rim countries to forecast this century’s world order, much can be learned from the diplomatic manoeuvrings of the nations that comprise this ‘sea of islands’2.

The shifting fulcrum of global power from the north Atlantic to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ maritime corridor has sparked debate about whether the rise of this new ‘super region3‘ marks a significant shift in the world order. Influenced by the United States’ ‘pivot to Asia4‘, the rise of China and Indo-China relations, references to the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ are creeping into several foreign policy positions5 and have been described as a diplomatic platform where India-China-USA relations will predominate.

Within an Indo-Pacific region, the Pacific Islands Forum6 comprises a political grouping of 16 countries that control much of the ocean resources within the western and central Pacific Ocean7, half of the number of nations in this ‘new’ maritime region. Often relegated to the sidelines of global power groupings due to the size of their economies and archipelagic nature, these countries are more aptly referred to as the ‘great ocean states’, because of their large EEZs and their management of the planet’s largest ocean8 in which the world has many interests. For example, Tuvalu9 has a population of approximately 10,000 people—but an EEZ of almost 1 million square kilometres, equivalent to the USA’s largest state of Alaska or China’s third largest administrative division, Inner Mongolia10. Similarly, the atoll nation of Kiribati has an EEZ of over 3 million square kilometres11, equivalent to a third of both the USA and China’s land mass12.

These countries have complex diplomatic relations, utilising numerous multilateral networks and platforms. They exert influence on the outcomes of the ‘big’ diplomatic power plays, relating to climate change, regional security, shared resources or maritime affairs. Papua New Guinea’s inclusion in the recent G7 Summit outreach meetings13, both in its national capacity and as current Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, signals a growing recognition from the more powerful economies of the need to factor in the interests of the Pacific’s ocean states.

The Pacific Islands Forum grouping regularly engages in high-level dialogue with recognised country partners, which includes eight Asian states –  China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Republic of Korea and Thailand – plus the USA, on a regional agenda set by Forum Leaders and guided by a Framework for Pacific Regionalism14. Bilaterally, Forum members nurture additional diplomatic relations with other Asian and Pacific Rim countries such as Russia. In an increasingly complex global geopolitical landscape, the complexity of these relationships underscores the trend toward network diplomacy and the Pacific’s search for pragmatic and strategic allegiances that serve the interests of the Pacific Ocean region.

It is time to pay more attention to the diplomatic choreography of the Pacific’s great ocean states, if at least to understand the direction of the power pendulum in the new Indo-Pacific.

Article by Anna Naupa, Regional and International Issues Adviser, Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Suva.

“The views represented in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.”

Anna Naupa was a participant at the ‘Soft Power in the Indo-Pacific: Emerging Models and Themes’ round table that was held in partnership by The Griffith Asia Institute, DFAT and the Korea Foundation, 19–20 May 2016.