Analysis – By a special correspondent
Representatives of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) member countries gathered in Palau last week with an oceanic task on their hands: to revitalise their region’s premier political organisation.
This year’s gathering featured a review of the Forum’s decade-old Pacific Plan, which finds it to be poorly focused, and bogged down in a “largely officials-led process” that has come to be dominated by “bureaucratic and institutional interests”.
The solution, according to the review team led by a former prime minister of Papua New Guinea Prime, Sir Mekere Morauta, is for the region to engage in some “pooling of sovereignty”, but not full integration.
Several of the region’s key leaders chose not to participate in the Palau summit with its debates about how to strengthen the regional architecture.
Australia’s Tony Abbott said he was busy with other matters. The prime ministers of New Zealand and Fiji, John Key and Frank Bainimarama, are on the campaign trail ahead of elections in September.
Fiji is anyway suspended from the Forum because of the military coup that brought Bainimarama to power in 2006, though the country will likely be invited back if its next elections are deemed reasonably fair.
Bainimarama says he does not want to bring Fiji back to the Forum anyway, unless Australia and New Zealand are kicked out. He has set up a rival group, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, which met in June and managed to secure Indonesia’s outgoing President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as its keynote speaker.
Given those challenges to the PIF, and that level of disinterest among some of its leaders, the prospects for substantial commitments to pooling sovereignty may seem slender.
The incentives to do so seem relatively weak. Trade and capital flows generate little in the way of common ground between the micro-states of the Pacific islands. The main economic linkages are outwards—to Australia and New Zealand, and increasingly to Malaysia, China and the rest of the Far East.
Politically too, the micro-states’ key ties are outside the region, particularly for the tiny aid-dependent atolls and the territories still under French or American sovereignty.
Efforts in the 1970s to create a truly regional airline, Air Pacific, were ultimately unsuccessful. The firm stayed primarily under the control of Fiji, which renamed it Fiji Airways in 2013.
The Forum Shipping Line, which does not operate its own ships but only code-shares with private contractors, was taken over by Samoa in 2012 and then privatised earlier this year.
A regional tertiary institution exists, the University of the South Pacific based in Fiji, but only with a highly devolved campus structure. Other member-states—such as Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG)—anyway have their own national universities.
Deliberations on a regional trade agreement with Australia have faltered, not least because of Fiji’s exclusion and because of Australian reluctance to open its doors to labour migration from the rest of the Pacific.
Asylum seekers friction
Australia’s current initiatives in the region are unlikely to speed the development of robust regional institutions. Its establishment of detention centres, on PNG’s Manus Island and on Nauru, which are being used to house asylum-seekers who were caught trying to reach Australia by sea, has had negative repercussions for the governance of both countries. It has also had the effect of generating some friction between PNG and Fiji.
Unless Bainimarama were to carry the day with his alternate Pacific Islands forum, Australia would have to be the critical player in any strengthening of the region as such.
But this year the government of Tony Abbott cut its aid to the rest of the Pacific dramatically and shut down the Australian Television Network, which used to broadcast to the island nations.
With Australia’s influence waning, and Fiji temporarily excluded, PNG’s relative prominence in the PIF deliberations has risen.
Papua New Guinea’s own nominee, Dame Meg Taylor, a former official with the World Bank, has been selected to serve as the organisation’s next secretary-general. She becomes the first woman to hold the post.
While the island-states have been reluctant to concede sovereignty, there have been some important regional diplomatic successes.
The Nauru Agreement, which is co-ordinated by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, regulates fishing in the vast exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Pacific. Along with a series of other agreements with the same signatories, it has helped to generate some much-needed income for the land-poor atolls, even if it has not been sufficient to halt chronic overfishing.
The main PIF security initiative, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, was reasonably successful in ending a five-year period of violent conflict in that country, at least in its early stages. It is now winding down, though the Solomon Islands’ prime minister argued at the PIF that—by insisting on keeping rigid control of the mission for itself—Australia has missed a rare opportunity to strengthen the region’s security institutions.
Yet collective Pacific diplomacy, entailing “joint regional action aimed at mediating, moderating or denying harmful global influences on the region and to maximise the benefits from positive international influences” has enjoyed some success, in the view of Greg Fry, a professor at the University of the South Pacific.
In the past, there have been successful regional negotiations on trade agreements with EU, on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and on nuclear shipments. Most recently, the presidents of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, Anote Tong and Christopher Loeak respectively, have been at pains to draw attention to climate change and the related problem of rising sea levels. Still, those issues are not likely to find much favour with the region’s mini-superpower. Australia’s Abbott has in the past contested the basic fact of global warming.
His attempt to create a conservative global alliance against any effort to introduce carbon pricing is unlikely to find many takers among the Pacific nations. If there were to be any new sense of regional solidarity on the basis of environmental issues, then, it would have to proceed without Australia. Either that, or a change of government in Canberra.
Source: The Economist