Friends to All; or the Pacific’s Politics of Indifference

Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

The Pacific Islands region is well known for its diplomatic strategy of ‘friends to all’. In the first instance it is a strategy similar to a non-aligned position. Such a position perhaps seems appropriate given the current geo-strategic competition between major powers in and around the Pacific region. Indeed, many commentators point out that while Pacific governments are reluctant to engage in the tensions between major powers, the non-aligned position nonetheless enables the Pacific to benefit from the geo-strategic competition. Therefore, in addition to a non-aligned position, friends to all is also, perhaps foremost, a position of economic engagement. That is, by refraining from geopolitical alliances the friends to all approach opens the Pacific up to receiving financial aid and support from anyone willing to provide it. In the current moment of heightened competition in and around the region, there have been no shortage of friends willing to lend a helping hand. Nonetheless, either way we look at it, the friends to all approach is considered by many to be a sophisticated diplomacy in which Pacific governments skilfully manoeuvre within international politics to not only win financial support but also support for their own priorities.

Despite this positive assessment, there remain a few key questions with regards to the friends to all approach. Given the end of history context declared by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), that is of a region with no choice but to remain dependent on foreign aid, is the friends to all approach necessarily the limit or horizon of Pacific politics? What value will this approach have in a future in which the periphery continues moving towards the centre (rather than vice versa) leading to a drying up of national funds available as foreign aid? How can it help the region secure a sustainable and viable future against our seeming fate as a sacrifice zone?

In response to the first question, of course if one accepts that we are indeed in the end of history where the Pacific has no other options but to remain dependent on foreign aid, then the friends to all approach appears to be the only option on the table. And indeed, Pacific Island governments have skilfully drawn on their identity, vulnerability and votes at the UN to win financial support and support for Pacific priorities. However, as has been discussed in previous posts, the end of history scenario proclaimed by the ABD is itself the coming catastrophe which is already here, precisely in the form of our presuppositions about what can be done to secure our future. So while friends to all may have value within the existing coordinates of global liberal-democratic capitalism, the point is that the latter has us on a path to extinction. If these coordinates remain the horizon of our politics, then the Pacific will be sacrificed by our friends’ imperialist interests and strategic military positioning. With friends like these, who needs climate change!

A politics of indifference

The key question about the friends to all approach, therefore, concerns our political horizon. Does it help or hinder us from opening up a space within the existing situation for something new to emerge? German philosopher Frank Ruda provides a mapping to help us think through this via his works Abolishing Freedom1 and How to Act as if One Were Not Free. A Contemporary Defense of Fatalism. Following Ruda, we claim that the ‘friends to all’ approach is a politics of indifference. For Ruda, indifference arises when both (or all) options before us have the same validity and therefore it does not matter which choice we make. Consequently, what matters most is the possibility of choosing without actually choosing (as it doesn’t matter which option/friend I choose); or in other words, it is the freedom to choose that matters. This form of freedom as indifference is, for Ruda, ‘the poorest degree of freedom because it is freedom in an unrealised form’. In it, freedom exists only as the possibility or capacity for freedom. Following Ruda’s argument, we claim that by continuing to engage in a friends to all politics of indifference, ‘we aim to act without taking sides, but in fact we are taking sides against taking sides. This leads to an abstract formal freedom (which is aimed at negating all cases of taking sides). Therefore, the very act of being friends to all that makes me indifferent is also ’forcing me to be determined without or against my will’.

We can see how this politics of indifference provides the form of our current Pacific agency and autonomy. Our autonomy rests upon the capacity to act freely, the possibility of freely making a choice amongst friends. The first thing we can observe is that while this capacity to choose applies to all of our friends, this freedom is typically denied by regional powers and mainstream media when a Pacific Island country makes a choice to accept financial aid from China. In such instances, Pacific agency vanishes under the apparent coercive control of China. More than that, Pacific government’s are warned about making such a choice,.Indeed, in response to the Solomon Islands signing a security agreement with China, the Biden administration ‘warned the Solomon Islands that the United States will take unspecified action against the South Pacific nation should its recently concluded cooperation agreement with China pose a threat to U.S. or allied interests’. Here we see the ideology involved in the friends to all strategy – the US and its allies allow the freedom to choose under a friends to all approach on condition that we do not make the wrong choice. They defend only our capacity for freedom not of actually exercising freedom in any meaningful way.

Therefore, while Pacific governments claim to be reluctant to engage in the geopolitical tensions, they nonetheless reinforce its logic through a politics of indifference. Which brings us to a second observation: that contrary to the ADB end of history in the Pacific, it is not our so-called structural limitations that determine our dependency on foreign aid; rather, it is the position of friends to all, grounded in a misunderstood notion of freedom, that determines our dependency. In short, it is the politics of indifference resulting from a mis-understanding of freedom as the capacity to choose that limits us to the political horizon of ABD’s end of history.

Making the impossible choice

What is missing in the above considerations, therefore, is the possibility for Pacific governments make a choice based on something else. Not simply choosing a friend other than China or the US and its allies; but rather a choice outside of, on the one hand, choosing sides in the geopolitical struggle, and on the other, of refraining from choosing sides at all (i.e., friends to all). This enables us to see the recent actions of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in a new light. For example, a politics of indifference excludes the option that, for example, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands chose deeper relations with China based on legitimate concerns for autonomy, security and development. During her 2019 keynote address at the China Alternative seminar in Vanuatu, Meg Taylor stressed, ‘To a large extent, Forum Island countries have been excluded from the sorts of financing, technology and infrastructure that can enable us to fully engage in a globalised world’. China’s presence in the region and its Belt and Road Initiative present a viable option for redressing the Pacific’s persistent exclusion from the globalised world. It enables Pacific Island countries to exercise concrete freedom through making choices about infrastructure and technology necessary for sustainable development and for securing a viable future. In contrast, by maintaining freedom as a possibility or capacity to choose, the friends to all politics of indifference disavows such choices for enacting concrete freedom.

In July this year former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Pacific nations must be friends to all, but beholden to none’. Following the above, we can see Clark’s plea is a call for the Pacific to maintain its freedom as nothing more than a capacity to act, reinforcing the politics of indifference plaguing the region. Indeed, it is not hard to discern the hidden message underneath this plea: please do not make choices that will develop your freedom and autonomy in any meaningful way, we (ANZUS) need you to remain dependent on us!

  1. F. Ruda (2016), ‘Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism’, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.