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Pacific Islands Forum at a crossroads

Pacific Islands Forum at a crossroads
Published 2 Sep 2013 

Associate Professor Sandra Tarte is in the School of Government, Development and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific.

Climate change and Fiji's election plans are touted as being the top issues at this year's Pacific Islands Forum, which convenes in the Republic of the Marshall Islands' capital Majuro tomorrow. But it will be deliberations on the future of the regional organisation itself, long regarded as the Pacific's 'peak regional body', that may define this summit.

Leaders in Majuro will be presented with a proposal for a major shake-up of the Forum's processes as a way of advancing a more relevant and politically robust framework for Pacific regionalism. This proposal, which is the product of a review initiated last year of the Forum's blueprint for closer cooperation and integration (The Pacific Plan), comes at a seminal moment in the Forum's 42-year history.

Chair of the Pacific Plan Review Team, Sir Mekere Morauta from Papua New Guinea, recently pointed to a 'palpable frustration' throughout the Pacific with the failure of existing institutions to come up with the right answers to the region's development challenges. Some of the 'new Pacific politics', he says, is a reflection of that. [fold]

This 'new Pacific politics' refers to the emergence in recent years of a more assertive, island-centered regionalism, with Pacific countries promoting alternative regional processes and agendas to that of the Pacific Islands Forum. The key sites are around tuna management (the Parties to the Nauru Agreement), trade and security (Melanesian Spearhead Group) and sustainable development and climate change (the recently inaugurated Pacific Islands Development Forum).

Of these three, the new Pacific Islands Development Forum is the most ambitious and potentially far reaching.

It encompasses all Pacific island states and territories (although four have so far chosen to stay out) and is positioning itself as the principal interlocutor for Pacific island states at the UN. This is based on its claim to represent the Pacific sub-region of the UN's Asia Pacific Group, a configuration that pointedly excludes Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands Development Forum is Fiji's response to its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 (for failing to hold elections). It has received wide backing in part through the appeal of its agenda: to advance a unique Pacific economic model through partnerships and networks of governments, private sector and civil society.

It is also capitalising on the readiness of emerging economic powers to forge new relationships with Pacific island states. Financial backers of the new organisation and its secretariat, which is being established in the Fijian capital Suva, are Russia, China, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Up to 30 countries were observers at the inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum summit in Fiji in August, many of which are not Dialogue Partners of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Will the Pacific Islands Forum retain its status as preeminent organisation of the Pacific (clearly the preference of key members Australia and New Zealand)? Or is the Pacific Islands Development Forum a new contender for that title? Much will hinge on the outcomes from Majuro and on the willingness of Forum leaders to move with the times. But difficult choices lie ahead.

The Pacific Islands Forum remains the only occasion when all Pacific island leaders formally meet and it is the principal multilateral mechanism for leveraging aid and other assistance from the donor community. It is also the key political body through which major powers engage with the region. But the Pacific Islands Forum no longer includes Fiji and the Fijian government shows no interest in returning to the Forum. The fledgling Pacific Islands Development Forum is embracing a radical new style of regionalism that is more inclusive and promises to be 'outcomes driven', though it faces enormous challenges in translating its vision and mandate into practice.

Any rivalry and antipathy between the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the newly established Secretariat of the Pacific Islands Development Forum needs to be defused, and the role that each can play in promoting the sustainable development of the region should be recognised. Whether Pacific leaders meeting in Majuro are up to that challenge remains to be seen.

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