Navigating Nuclear Legacies, Climate Change, and Geopolitics in the Pacific Islands
Special Reports

Navigating Nuclear Legacies, Climate Change, and Geopolitics in the Pacific Islands

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Executive Summary

The Pacific Islands are at the crossroads of multiple existential threats. Afflicted by hundreds of nuclear and radioactive material tests by powerful nuclear weapons states from 1946 to 1996, the region continues to suffer the intergenerational human and environmental effects of those tests. In response, Pacific states have made continuous efforts to keep their region nuclear-free, including the establishment of the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (SPNFZ). In recent years, however, they find themselves navigating the escalating geopolitical competition and growing militarism of major powers, and an aggravating climate crisis, making the region increasingly precarious and highly contested.

Despite a renewed geopolitical focus on the region, Pacific voices remain underrepresented within wider regional and global conversations on issues that directly and indirectly affect them. There is an urgent need to engage and amplify Pacific voices on threats presented by climate change, past and present nuclear weapons policies and practices, and the geopolitical competition. In July 2022, APLN launched a project titled “Nuclear Disarmament and the Anthropocene: Voices from Pacific Island Countries,” with support from the Ploughshares Fund. The project has aimed to engage and promote perspectives from the region to draw international attention to the impacts of climate change and contemporary nuclear policies on the Pacific Islands, and to raise global awareness of the shared responsibility to address these human and environmental security challenges.

This report presents key insights from the project, drawn from publications and events commissioned from July 2022 to June 2024. It synthesises the ideas and perspectives from project participants and discusses next steps to advance the project’s objectives. Six key insights are discussed:

  1. The climate-nuclear-security nexus in the Pacific: Pacific leaders identify climate change as the “single-greatest threat to the security” of their communities. Risks from rising sea levels, warming temperatures, tropical storms, and ocean acidification disproportionately affects Pacific Islanders, who rely heavily on environmental and ocean resources for their economic, social, spiritual, and cultural livelihood. These climate risks are deeply intertwined with the region’s colonial past and nuclear testing legacy, that resulted in the loss of land and habitat, environmental degradation, displacement of Indigenous communities, and long-term health effects on those exposed to radiation and the generations born to them. The Runit Dome in Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands, is emblematic of this interlinkage. More recently, Japan’s decision to release nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean has exacerbated contemporary climate insecurities for the region. Pacific communities advocate for simultaneous action on nuclear disarmament and climate protection, seeking accountability and compensation from the international community for the harm caused by past nuclear activities.
  2. The impact of US-China rivalry on the Pacific: The United States has traditionally maintained closer ties in the Pacific region, compared to China. The region’s geopolitical landscape has, however, shifted in recent years. Emerging partners like China have shown support to regional bodies and offered alternative avenues for security, development cooperation, and market access. China’s expanding footprint, in turn, has prompted increased re-engagement from the United States in the Pacific. There is growing apprehension about the US-China rivalry and its implications for the overall security of their region. Some scholars fear the rivalry could once again lead to the Pacific Islands being used as a strategic playground by two nuclear-armed powers. Continued nuclear threat through geopolitical contestation and militarisation risks damaging Pacific solidarity, which is critical for channelling collective and individual resources toward climate change mitigation. Pacific nations face a dilemma in navigating these competing influences, challenging their traditional foreign policy positions. Regional discussions on the growing militarisation and security strategies of major powers are needed to understand how these might affect Pacific security and ability to respond to existential threats.
  3. Understanding Pacific perspectives: The framing of Pacific narratives in contemporary security debates is often still rooted in a colonial mindset, portraying the region as helpless and in need of saving. Western dominance in academic scholarship further exacerbates this issue, perpetuating neo-colonial narratives that overlook Pacific agency and resilience. In reality, Pacific communities have proactively resisted nuclear colonialism and led disarmament and climate change efforts through initiatives like the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement and the SPNFZ. Pacific leaders and scholars seek to frame their own narratives in global security debates, highlighting the strengths and richness of the region and its peoples, and call for genuine engagement and partnership from non-Pacific countries to empower Pacific communities and ensure that their voices are heard globally.
  4. Nuclear justice for the Pacific communities: For many decades, Pacific Island communities have led nuclear justice advocacy, grounded in movements centered around decolonisation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. While there is no standard definition of nuclear justice, it primarily addresses historical injustices from nuclear testing and its ongoing repercussions. It focuses on remedying harm to victims through restorative approaches such as repatriation, resettlement, healthcare, compensation, and environmental remediation. Achieving nuclear justice requires tackling systemic issues like ‘disarmament non-compliance’, environmental contamination, and the marginalisation of affected communities. Some also advocate for retributive justice, emphasizing accountability and reparations from the perpetrators, alongside cultural processes of apology and reconciliation. Ultimately, nuclear justice encompasses restorative, procedural, and retributive elements, aiming to restore dignity, recognise human rights violations, amplify victim voices, and raise global awareness about the enduring impacts of nuclear testing in the Pacific.
  5. Building trust and engagement: Fostering internal and regional dialogues in the Pacific is crucial in realizing the shared vision of security, stability, and prosperity for the Blue Pacific Continent. Closer cooperation, dialogue, and engagement is needed among Pacific and Asian experts, policy practitioners, and civil society groups to future-proof the Asia-Pacific region against geopolitical challenges and to identify collaborative solutions for shared security concerns. The recent signing of an inter-Secretariat Memorandum of Understanding between ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) marks a promising start of collaboration; however, further operational-level collaboration is needed to build trust, understanding, and advocate for concrete actions.
  6. The role of women in fighting for a nuclear-free Pacific: Women have historically been at the forefront of the Pacific’s anti-nuclear campaigns, organizing public movements, demanding accountability from governments for past-nuclear harms, and raising awareness of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. From Marshall Islands to French Polynesia and Australia, Pacific women have been instrumental in highlighting the gendered impacts of nuclear testing and campaigning for disarmament. Women’s groups in the Pacific have also played significant roles in nuclear disarmament, contributing to the negotiation of treaties like the SPNFZ and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Through personal narratives, scholarly debates, literary activism, and artistic expression, Pacific women continue to shed light on the ongoing impacts of nuclear testing and advocate for a nuclear-free future.

There is a critical need to deepen engagement and collaboration within the Pacific Islands while expanding dialogue across the wider Asia-Pacific region. People-to-people exchanges and Track 2 diplomatic platforms can serve as valuable mediums for coordinating like-minded actors and stakeholders across the Asia-Pacific, bypassing sometimes reluctant official government channels. Central to this effort is empowering Pacific voices, emphasizing their agency and perspectives in global security conversations. Engagement by non-Pacific states must be based on an understanding of Pacific priorities. Moving forward, a solutions-based approach must be adopted, going beyond identifying challenges to foster actionable strategies for Pacific security. Bridging the dialogue gap between Pacific Island nations and their Asian counterparts is crucial to comprehensively address shared nuclear, climate, and other security risks in the Asia-Pacific. Through sustained efforts in trust-building and dialogue, meaningful progress towards mitigating these existential threats can be achieved, promoting the security of the Pacific Islands and broader Asia-Pacific region.

About the authors

Tanvi Kulkarni is a Policy Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (APLN), based in India. Her primary research focus is on nuclear politics, including doctrines, diplomacy, arms control and confidence building measures, and she has published research on South Asia’s nuclear weapons programmes. She has a Master of Philosophy and PhD in Diplomacy and Disarmament studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her PhD thesis examines why states in a nuclear dyad negotiate nuclear confidence-building measures. Dr Kulkarni is also a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi and a South Asia Advisor at the International Students/ Young Pugwash (ISYP). She has previously taught at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University and co-ordinated the India-Pakistan Chaophraya Track II Dialogue.

Elaine Natalie is a Policy Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (APLN), and a recent graduate of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies with a Master’s degree in International Cooperation. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Yonsei University’s Underwood International College, where she majored in International Studies and minored in Political Science and International Relations. Born and raised in Indonesia, Elaine is fluent in English and Indonesian. She is experienced in project management and organisation and is the APLN coordinator for a number of projects and network activities. Her research interests include the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties and regimes, and the intersection of existential threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated in this work represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to

Image: Micronesian Stick Chart, Photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards (National Geographic, May 1967).