Tuesday 04 Aug 2020 | 18:13 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The Lowy Institute is a member of the Pacific Research Program (PRP). The PRP, launched on 1 October 2017, is a consortium led by the ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs (formerly SSGM) and including the ANU’s Development Policy Centre and the Lowy Institute. Co-funded by DFAT and the consortium partners’ parent bodies, the PRP is a four-year program designed to be a globally pre-eminent centre of excellence for research on the Pacific that:

1. Produces high-quality policy relevant research that is available, accessible and communicated to policy makers and program designers in Australia, the Pacific and from around the world;

2. Plays a central role in fostering and facilitating a strong and vibrant Pacific-Australia-New Zealand-wide network of research on the Pacific;

3. Is connected to Australia’s broader engagement with the Pacific and fosters a greater knowledge and understanding of the Pacific among the Australian community;

4. Demonstrates a high degree of effectiveness in contributing to evidence-based policy-making and program design primarily in Australia and also the Pacific and around the world.

The geographic scope of the PRP is the Pacific region as a whole, though Melanesia will be an area of particular interest in line with Australia’s geographic location and national interests. The sectoral focus of the PRP will be on the intersection of politics, economy and power in relation to the region’s most pressing development challenges.

The Institute will be contributing to the PRP across multiple areas, but will also focus on its strengths of production of policy-relevant research, communication of research to broader audiences, media engagement, and engagement with the broader Australian community on the Pacific.

Experts

Jenny Hayward-Jones
Nonresident Fellow, Pacific Islands Program
Annmaree O’Keeffe
Nonresident Fellow
Ian Kemish
Nonresident Fellow, Pacific Islands Program
Sean Dorney
Nonresident Fellow, Pacific Islands Program
Jonathan Pryke
Director, Pacific Islands Program

Latest publications

West Papua: The Issue That Won't Go Away for Melanesia

West Papuans continue to fight for independence with the support of many Pacific nations. Despite Indonesia’s opposition and the recent impact of COVID-19 on the region, the resolution of West Papuan grievances may have stalled but nationalist sentiment has not been quelled. 

Worry ahead of New Caledonia’s independence vote

Last month, a year before the deadline for the referendum on independence from France, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe visited the semi-autonomous territory of New Caledonia.

Philippe is anxious about potential unrest. In October, a special delegation of New Caledonians expressed their concerns to the UN decolonisation committee in New York. According to them, the Noumea Accord (the territory's roadmap leading to the 2018 referendum) is not being applied correctly.

How this situation unfolds will be of significant interest to the region.

Memories of painful 'events'

New Calendonia has struggled with instability in the past, with the most notable example being the évènement, as the locals call it, in the 1980s. Despite decolonisation processes in territories around the globe, French governments succeeded in curtailing self-determination among the Kanak population for three decades until the territorial elections of 1984. That year, the influential indépendandtiste Jean-Marie Tjibaou proclaimed the creation of the sovereign state. The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) rose up against  loyalists of the territory, leading to conflict along a distinct ethnic divide. In 1988 violence reached its peak with the deaths of 21 people in a hostage crisis in Ouéva.

This violence pushed both sides to open dialogue, which led to the signing of the Matignon-Oudinot Accords that same year. These agreements offered institutional and economic guarantees to the Kanaks and planned a ten-year development program that led to the negotiation and ratification of the Noumea Accords on 5 May 1998. The Noumea Accords, in turn, prepared for the progressive transfer of certain powers of self-determination to the locally elected government of New Caledonia. France kept the five sovereign powers (defence, foreign affairs, currency, justice, and public order) until 2018, and the organisation of a referendum for independence. The goal of this referendum (the first of a possible three from 2018 to 2022) is to vote on three topics: the transfer of all sovereign powers to New Caledonia, the admittance of 'full responsibility' international status, and incorporating nationality into citizenship.

Sources of instability

The potential for instability of a sovereign New Caledonia has three dimensions: social, political, and economic.

First, there is a social issue. At the time of the last census, New Caledonia had around 268,000 inhabitants. Kanaks made up 39%, while Europeans made up 27%. The others (populations feeling Caledonian and not affiliated with any other ethnic group proposed) represent 20% of the population, followed by smaller ethnic groupings. As a proportion of the population, the Kanaks represent the largest single ethnic group on the territory. However, when comparing the Kanaks' numbers against the total non-Kanaks, the native population is a minority. This dynamic can lead to tension.

Second, the political and legal situation of the territory is complex. The Noumea Accords generated a particular institutional landscape in New Caledonia. The French Constitution had to be modified to create the 'Transitional provisions relating to New Caledonia', resulting in the creation of a special and unique 'New Caledonian' citizenship.

This special status preserves voting rights in the referendum for long-term residents of New Caledonia. Only people with ten years' residency to 1998 and their descendants are able to participate in the referendum. This also creates a tension among the population living on the island, many of whom have arrived in the years since 1998 and expect to have a say on the territory's future sovereignty.

Finally, the fragile economy is an important source of instability in New Caledonia, a resource-rich territory with ample hydrocarbons, fish stocks and about a quarter of the world's nickel reserves. The nickel industry has always been important for the development of the territory's economy. Between 2004 and 2014, the metal's relatively high price accrued important economic benefits for New Caledonia; however, the past three years have seen prices collapse, and the industry has suffered as a consequence.

New Caledonia's economy is now in bad shape, making the territory's financial dependence on France more pronounced. The cost of public services in New Caledonia averages 350 billion CFP francs per year (AU$1.92 billion), half of which is paid for by the French central government. Various infrastructure projects have been financed by France and/or the EU to sustain New Caledonia's economy. Today, France's financial support makes up more than 15% of the territory's GDP. Without this support, it would be difficult for New Caledonia to finance its own public service and to sustain its economy. This, by itself, could contribute to anxiety on the island.

This instability is not only a worry for France, but also for the regional community.

For Australia and New Zealand, the French territory is of strategic importance. Over the past few years, China has been increasing its engagement with the region. As Australian former diplomat Denise Fisher wrote about New Caledonia, 'at a time when Chinese engagement … can potentially alter our seaways and immediate neighbourhood, a stable ally at the western end of the South Pacific is an asset'.

What can be done

It is in the region's best interest to keep New Caledonia stable. But what can be done?

On a societal level, both Kanaks and non-Kanaks need to find common ground moving forward. Although the yes or no nature of the referendum does not leave much space for consensus, both camps need to form a shared vision of how the territory can unify post-referendum.

On the political front, the French Prime Minister mentioned this month that 'everything possible will be done to identify everyone who is not yet registered on the electoral lists but who is qualified to be'. Having a clear electoral roll would simplify the election process.

On the economy, few solutions have been offered over the past few years. Philippe Gomès, leader of the pro-France group, suggests the creation of a 'fund for the future generations' that would be fed by revenues from the nickel industry. This would allow the country to create sufficient savings for the generations to come, and is a model used in other Pacific island countries, such as Tuvalu and Timor-Leste. But this would not help immediately, and would be challenging because the nickel industry is suffering currently. The economy also needs to diversify, with the government investing more in other economic activity, such as tourism, agriculture and fisheries. It could also look to explore opportunities in its immediate waters, rich in cobalt, phosphate and other hydrocarbons.

At the moment, the situation in New Caledonia should be watched closely by its neighbours. According to a recent poll, New Caledonians are likely to vote to remain a part of France. However, there is still one year to go before the referendum. No doubt Canberra, Paris and the region in general will be paying close attention.

The bad – and good – of China’s aid in the Pacific

The Pacific region is making headlines across Australia after Pacific and International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells harshly criticised Chinese aid in the region. 'Useless' is how Fierravanti-Wells has described Chinese aid projects, leading countries to take on debt they can't afford. While her concerns are legitimate, her blunt delivery hasn't been constructive and has led to some considerable political and diplomatic fallout.

So what's the real story? Is Chinese aid in the Pacific useless?

The answer is not so simple. China's aid program is so opaque it is very difficult to understand exactly what it is doing. China does not conform to the sophisticated reporting and accountability mechanisms that traditional Western donors have developed over decades of aid delivery. According to some estimates, China announced more than US$350 billion in aid between 2000 and 2014 under a shroud of secrecy, leading to considerable anxiety about where, why and how Chinese aid is given.

This anxiety extends to the Pacific, where since 2006 China has rapidly expanded both its commercial ties and aid program. The Lowy Institute has invested considerable time to better understand China's engagement. Our map of Chinese aid in the Pacific shows projects committed from 2006 to the middle of 2016. By scouring budget documents from countries across the Pacific, Chinese government websites, secondary sources such as conventional and social media, and conducting numerous interviews, we have compiled the most comprehensive picture of China's involvement in the region. It is not perfect, but it identifies and quantifies Chinese aid better than any other source.

Our research shows Chinese aid in the Pacific has grown substantially, with China committing more than US$1.7 billion in aid to eight Pacific Island countries (including Timor-Leste). To put this into context, total traditional aid to these countries over the same period was over US$9 billion, with aid from Australia making up almost two-thirds this amount.

An important distinction must be drawn between Chinese projects and traditional ones. China typically engages in large infrastructure projects by providing low interest, or 'concessional', loans that eventually have to be repaid. There is often scant information beyond an announcement, with no detail on the terms of these loans or repayment schedule. Australia and other traditional donors typically provide one-way grants that do not need to be paid back and engage in more complex (albeit far from perfect) forms of assistance across multiple sectors, from humanitarian assistance to governance support.

To illustrate this point, while we have identified 216 Chinese aid projects in the Pacific from 2006, there have been more than 5000 projects carried out by traditional donors since only 2011. While Chinese numbers may appear large, it involves a concentration into select large projects. Because of this distinction, comparing Chinese aid to Australia's is like comparing apples and oranges. China has emerged as a significant donor, yet is it clearly still not the biggest player in the Pacific.

Understanding the quantum of Chinese aid is only the starting point. The greater challenge is understanding quality, the point that has landed Fierravanti-Wells in strife. Such judgments are not black and white, and ultimately projects have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The best research on this, looking at the experience of four countries in the region, has found that effectiveness of China's aid to be mixed; projects in Samoa have largely led to positive outcomes, while the experience in Tonga and Vanuatu has been less positive.

Importantly, the authors find that the quality of Chinese aid projects are 'dependent in large part on the actions of Pacific Island governments'. This shouldn't come as a surprise. China is not forcing aid on these countries; the Pacific governments have to tell China what they want and manage the projects to a standard that ensures China delivers. With these findings in mind, a criticism of Chinese aid is also an implicit criticism of the governments in the region that agreed to the projects in the first place.

The point Fierravanti-Wells makes about debt distress is a fair one. The International Monetary Fund has noted that Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu all face considerable debt repayment pressures, and all have significant debt to China. Xi Jinping has even acknowledged the debt burden in the past, promising forgiveness that has yet to eventuate. There are also cautionary tales elsewhere in the world of China taking advantage of debt-distressed nations. Considering the portfolio of loans in Pacific countries (think government buildings and conference facilities, rather than critical infrastructure projects such as deep-sea ports or airports), this seems less of a problem, though certainly worth keeping a close eye on. But again, much of this responsibility must rest with Pacific governments. Australia can't criticise China without criticising decision-makers in the Pacific as well.

Given this messy context, the statements by Fierravanti-Wells, while not without basis, have not been constructive. Attacking the new kid on the block is the easy way out, and Australia is a far from perfect player in the region. The government should instead be working harder to encourage the role of Chinese aid in the Pacific, acknowledging it as an important complement to Australia's aid. China's continuing attention on the region should also be a catalyst for Australians to take a hard look at themselves and ask how they can do more in the immediate region and work with all actors towards a more prosperous Pacific.

Pacific island links: Chinese aid, the Panguna mine, Kato Ottio and more

By Euan Moyle, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program.

  • The Minister for International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has accused China of providing unfair loans to Pacific nations and building 'white elephants' to grow influence in the region.
     
  • A volcano on Papua New Guniea's Kadovar Island has erupted after lying dormant for at least 300 years, forcing 700 people to evacuate and raising concerns of a possible tsunami if the eruption escalates. 
     
  • Still in PNG, Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia was attacked and injured in Enga Province in what is believed to be violence related to sorcery.
     
  • Tongan King Tupou VI has officially reappointed 'Akilisi Pohiva as Prime Minister, after the King unexpectedly dissolved Parliament and called a snap election in late 2017, which Pohiva's Democratic Party went on to win.
     
  • Attempts by Bougainville Copper Limited to reopen the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, the source of the decade-long conflict on the island in the 1990s, have been shelved indefinitely after a vote by landowners.
     
  • ABC's Pacific Beat reflected on some of the successes, comebacks and controversies that shaped the emerging music scene in the Pacific in 2017.
     
  • Stephen Howes and Sachini Muller look at the rapid growth of Australia's Seasonal Worker Program, which is attracting increased interest from Pacific Islanders.
     
  • PNG Kumuls rugby league player Kato Ottio collapsed and died at training in Port Moresby earlier this week at the age of 23, sending the rugby league community into mourning:


Pacific island links: PNG snapshots, the French PM in New Caledonia, Mini Games and more

By Euan Moyle, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program.

  • The Lowy Institute has released Papua New Guinea: Seven Snapshots of a Nation, which analyses PNG’s political, social, economic and security trends.
     
  • French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has kicked off his four-day visit to New Caledonia with a visit to the grave of independence activist Jean-Marie Tjibaou and an address to the territory’s congress. The PM’s trip is part of the preparations for the 2018 independence referendum.
     
  • Meanwhile, Philippe Germain has been re-elected as New Caledonia’s President, after a three-month impasse between pro- and anti-independence politicians forced the territory to rely on a caretaker government.
     
  • After more than 30 years of local activism, Papua New Guinea has declared the Managalas Plateau a conservation area, making it the largest conservation area in the country.
     
  • The Pacific Mini Games has opened in Vanuatu, with 5000 people filling the Korman Stadium in Port Vila to watch the opening ceremony.
     
  • Kiribati is expected to suffer some of the worst consequences of climate change, with the UN estimating the nation could disappear in less than 50 years. DW looks at what the nation’s inhabitants are doing to prevent their nation from being lost to rising sea levels:

 

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