COVID-19 exposes cracks in Pacific regionalism

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Authors: Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos, Massey University

At the time of writing, there are 63 reported cases of COVID-19 in the Pacific. This includes one in Papua New Guinea, three in Fiji, seven in New Caledonia, 23 in French Polynesia, 29 in Guam and suspected cases in Samoa. The number is relatively low but there is a sense that tragedy is unfolding in slow motion across a region where health sectors are already under-funded and poorly equipped.

Maxi Mart employee Nena Nena is interviewed by Pacific Daily News reporter Jojo Santo Tomas about the use of nearby hotels, Wyndham Garden Guam, and Days Inn, as 14-day quarantine zones for passengers coming from COVID-19 affected areas, on Ypao Road, 20 March, 2020 (Photo: Reuters).

Maxi Mart employee Nena Nena is interviewed by Pacific Daily News reporter Jojo Santo Tomas about the use of nearby hotels, Wyndham Garden Guam, and Days Inn, as 14-day quarantine zones for passengers coming from COVID-19 affected areas, on Ypao Road, 20 March, 2020 (Photo: Reuters).

Official responses to the pandemic have varied across the region. Pacific states are implementing border protection policies including reducing inbound flights, banning cruise ships, restricting officials from travelling overseas and closing traditional border crossings. New Zealand and Australia, gateways to the islands, have closed their borders.

In addition to the implications for health security in the Pacific, a number of observations can be made about Pacific regionalism and the longer-term consequences of COVID-19 for partnerships and trust. Pacific states have responded in various ways, from Papua New Guinea elevating COVID-19 from a public health crisis to a national security issue, to Nauru declaring a state of emergency under the National Disaster Risk Management Act 2016.

Australia and New Zealand are jointly funding the World Health Organization’s Pacific response plan at a cost of around US$1 million. But there are differences in how the two countries are publicly responding to Pacific needs. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated that New Zealand has a duty of care to the Pacific Islands, and has even made updates available in nine Pacific languages. Meanwhile, the Australian government has come under fire for being missing in action and not providing public information about how Australia is protecting the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic demands a regional response, but one has not been forthcoming. In a speech at the Global Focus Summit in Wellington in February, Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi identified a series of choices that Pacific countries face in addressing global challenges, from climate change to geopolitical competition. Tuilaepa stated that Pacific countries will choose to address these challenges as a collective, in sub-regional groups, as individual countries or by embracing specific partnerships. He concluded that ‘it is the state of regionalism and interpretation that will shape national outcomes, experiences and wellbeing’.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has been quiet on COVID-19, raising the question of what role it could — or should — play in formulating a collective response. The 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security affirmed an expanded concept of security inclusive of human security to protect the rights, health and prosperity of Pacific people.

The 2019 Boe Declaration Action Plan seeks alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG3) to ‘ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing’. But the Action Plan focusses exclusively on non-communicable diseases with no reference to communicable diseases, while SDG3 refers to both. This is an odd oversight. The Boe Declaration states that climate change is an existential threat to Pacific peoples, yet climate-sensitive health risks, including infectious diseases, are not mentioned.

A collective response would fundamentally be about national-level responses and regional leadership. Linking COVID-19 to the Boe Declaration’s focus on human security would mandate the PIF to lead a coordinated regional response to monitor public health emergency preparedness and identify capacity needs and gaps within member states. The PIF could also coordinate cooperation and technical support with partner countries and agencies, specifically the Pacific Community (SPC), the principal scientific and technical organisation in the Pacific region, whose mandate includes public health surveillance. If the PIF does not step up in the face of COVID-19, it reveals a severe omission in forecasting and responding to regional health security threats.

A collective response is also about exercising leadership at a time when resilience is fundamentally important. Herein lies one of the strengths of the Pacific. The Blue Pacific identity is the core driver of collective action to advance the 2014 Framework for Pacific Regionalism, which calls for ‘a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy and productive lives’.

The challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents to the Pacific are best met with a collective response and regional leadership.

It has also been suggested that COVID-19 demands a regional disaster response such as enacting the FRANZ Arrangement between France, Australia and New Zealand, which allows for the coordination of humanitarian relief assistance in the Pacific. As Dan McGarry notes, this will take significant organisation. Although much activity is taking place to strengthen security sectors across the Pacific, such as Australia’s ‘Pacific step-up’ and New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Reset’, there are some obvious missed opportunities.

In 2016 we argued that to enhance regional security architecture, the FRANZ Arrangement and the Quadrilateral Defence Coordinating Group between Australia, New Zealand, France and the United States should be expanded to include key Pacific Island actors. This recommendation has since been advocated by Joanne Wallis in her submission to the Australian parliament’s 2020 inquiry into Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific island nations. But given that Pacific partners — particularly Australia and the United States — tend to emphasise traditional security approaches, there are concerns about the securitisation of human security such as health.

These are unprecedented times, but there is an opportunity for the PIF to lead a collective response. This will demand more resources, expertise and capital. This is also an opportunity for Pacific partners to demonstrate their commitment to engaging with the region, even in times when the temptation is to pull up the drawbridge.

Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer of Security Studies at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, Wellington.

Jose Sousa-Santos is a Senior Associate (Pacific Regional Security) at Victoria University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning and a Research Scholar at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research, Massey University.

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