Blue Pacific Politics in a Multipolar World – Lessons from Brazil

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

As the old unipolar world is dying and the new multipolar world is struggling to be born, there are a range of new multilateral and international fora for a Blue Pacific bloc to be a key leader for a more ambitious transformation of the political and economic system.

From the perspective of global geostrategic competition, the choices that lie before the Pacific are typically presented as one between siding with the US and its Indo-Pacific allies, or siding with China and its BRI. From this perspective, the idea that the Pacific might make decisions of its own based on anything other than aligning with the US or China is apparently meaningless or inexistent. In response, advocates of the New Pacific Diplomacy have highlighted that rather than getting embroiled in such geopolitics the Pacific as able to pursue its own agenda and priorities, such as climate change. Underpinning this Pacific perspective is of course the ‘friends to all approach’ – that is, the Pacific does not need to choose sides in the geopolitical tensions, but rather maintain an open position in order to find ways forward on its own priorities. Ilan Kiloe, head of Security programme at the Secretariat of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, recently argued the ‘tendency to “securitise” problems via a geopolitical lens only downplays legitimate aspirations of local communities. He asserts that it was the friends to all policy of the Solomon Islands government that guided the decision to pursue a security pact with China, and that given the destructive conflicts of the past and more recent riots, it makes sense that ‘government’s focus would naturally be on economic recovery and state building rather than on the geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies’.

As discussed in the previous post on Oceania Hypothesis, the friends to all approach is operates as an abstract negation. Therefore the opposition which structures the regional political order is not the opposition between China and the US but rather the opposition between on the one hand, choosing sides in the geostrategic competition between China and the US, and on the other, of refraining from choosing sides at all. Friends to all amounts to a refusal to take any side, which effectively amount to a refusal of politics altogether.

In a recent brief for the Lowy Interpreter, USP academic Sandra Tarte raises a crucial point for the Pacific Islands region in this context: “The lack of debate and consultation with the region about AUKUS highlights the need to reorient the Blue Pacific narrative and security agenda towards a much stronger focus on the implications of geopolitical competition on the region”. Importantly, she argues that rather than taking a distance from the geopolitical tensions in and around the region – or, following the language of PIFS 2023 Pacific Island Forum’s Security Outlook Report, being ‘distracted’ – the region should become more engaged with geopolitics in order to maximise the opportunities that it brings for the Pacific. Indeed, this point becomes particularly obvious when it comes to the region’s number one priority and security threat, climate change. Climate action by major powers today is driven more by geostrategic competition than it is by any desire to address a warming planet and its dire consequences. Therefore, rather than simply ignore the geopolitics impacting on the global energy transition in favour of ’the science’, the Pacific should actively engage in the geopolitics in order not only to ensure a just transition, but also Pacific emancipation in a post-fossil fuel global economy.

For Tarte, as the Pacific enters into ‘a new and potentially more dangerous phase of great power competition’ it should be prepared for engaging in the geopolitics through ‘dialogue in the region on how the “friends to all, enemies to none” posture can be operationalised more broadly, before it is too late’. But what exactly does operationalising the friends to all approach more broadly mean? If, as discussed above, friends to all is an approach that takes a distance from geopolitical rivalries, then in what way can it offer the basis for making a shift towards more directly engaging in the geopolitics of great power competition?

It is argued here that operationalising friends to all requires rejecting both sides of the opposition currently operative in the region: the choice of taking sides and of not taking sides in order to assert a third, universal position. For example, rather than simply rejecting the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) as being ‘Blue Pacific in name only’, the Pacific should become more like them than they are themselves. That is, rather than cynically rejecting the claims by the PBP that they seek to uphold Pacific regionalism and sovereignty, be Pacific led, and to support prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific, and promote open and inclusive cooperation, the Pacific should take these claims more seriously that the PBP. This does not mean joining the side of the US and its allies in the geopolitical context, nor does it mean maintaining an abstract preference of being friends to all. Rather, such a position seeks to objectively realise, make concrete, a Blue Pacific order where sovereignty, peace and resilience through a system of open cooperation and dialogue.

Here we should turn our attention to the foreign policy approach of Brazilian President Lula as a useful point of comparison. At first glance, Brazil’s posture appears similar to that of Pacific and its friends to all approach. President Lula recently stated “Brazil is back, seeking dialogue with everyone and committed to the search for a world without hunger and with peace”. Further, Brazil has a vision of the global order “based in dialogue, multilateralism and multipolarity” and rejects geostrategic divisions and confrontation. The key difference between Brazil and the Pacific is with the specific way Brazil approaches its vision of multilateralism and multipolarity. For Brazil, a commitment to multilateralism goes beyond a mere preference for seeking diplomatic consensus or maintaining the abstract freedom of friends to all. As Adler and Long highlight, ‘Lula’s administration advocates a fundamental reform of the multilateral system to “reflect the current distribution of world power”, as (Brazil Foreign Minister) Amorim has written’. In practice this requires giving a leading role to the global south in building a multipolar world through new political blocs, and indeed a new internationalism, that aims to rebalance the global order. How does Brazil seek to ‘operationalise’ (that is, objectively realise or make existent) such a vision for multilateralism and multipolarity? Adler and Long explain, in 2008 ‘Lula presided over the founding of a new global bloc that cuts right across this civilizational divide, bringing Brazil together with Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). Coming back into office, Lula has already declared his support for proposals to expand the bloc and develop a new BRICS payment system to facilitate greater non-dollar trade between its members.’

Others in the Global South are catching on to the opportunities that the current geostrategic context can provide for overcoming decades of subservience to a unipolar world and the prospects for a more ambitious transformation of the political and economic system. For example, Ebrahim Hashem, adviser to the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office and Asia Global Fellow at the Asia Global Institute of the University of Hong Kong, writes that ‘some in the old world hoped that the Arab world would become hopeless and mired in forever chaos so that they could forever exploit it’. In contrast, ‘Arab leaders, supported by most Arab people, want to maintain strategic autonomy, and make the Arabs a pole in the current fluid world order’. Hashem concludes by calling for Arabs to join forces and rally behind the vision of the new emerging world, ‘for the world order to be truly multipolar, the Arabs must coalesce and unite as one pole in it.’

To be clear, for the Pacific to engage assertively in geopolitics in such a manner does not mean simply taking sides with China either. This would be to remain at an abstract level of friends to all and at the mercy of simple preferences that can change from moment to moment, or country to country. The tasks is to construct objective political and economic structures that make existent Blue Pacific sovereignty, peace, prosperity and resilience in a way that they are a permanent part of the regional order, resilient to the whims of mere preferences for providers of foreign aid. Perhaps this is what it means to operationalise ‘friends to all more broadly’ – not an attempt to apply it to an ever increasing list of issues, but rather to apply it to the very structures upon which peace, prosperity and so on become concretely existent. As the old unipolar world is dying and the new multipolar world is struggling to be born, a range of multilateral avenues are opening up for a Blue Pacific bloc to follow the lead of Brazil and the Arab World in joining with the Global South to realise a more ambitious transformation of the political and economic system.