Competing claims for leadership of the Pacific Islands region are reinforcing doubts about the efficacy of regional architecture in the lead-up to the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' summit in Majuro in the Marshall Islands in the first week of September.
The Fiji Government hosted the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) this week. This event, together with a controversial speech by Fiji Foreign Minister at the Australia-Fiji Business Forum which criticised Australia's asylum seeker deal with PNG, is a marker in Fiji's intentions to reassert its leadership mantle in the Pacific Islands.
Before the 2006 coup Fiji had long projected itself as the leader among the independent island states of the region and as the voice of the island states. The region's hub for transport and services, Fiji also hosts the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the main campus of the region's university and a number of other regional organisations. But its ability to play a regional leadership role was diminished after the coup and further damaged when Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill (pictured), however, has also laid down claims, based on PNG's size and economic strength. Papua New Guinea is by far the biggest of the 14 independent island states of the region but its ability to play a leadership role has long been tempered by the sheer size of its domestic challenges.
Interestingly, O'Neill has chosen to eschew participation in the two major leaders' forums in the region this year, raising questions about his commitment to those forums. He did not attend Bainimarama's PIDF, despite earlier saying he would, because he was on an official visit to New Zealand this week. He did not attend the Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders meeting in New Caledonia in June as he was on a state visit to Indonesia in the same week.
While it is tempting to see the hand of Wellington and Jakarta in taking O'Neill out of play here, it is much more plausible that he made decisions about his travel based on PNG's national priorities. O'Neill himself has said, 'I think it's important as a region we do not have too many parallel organisations, we don't have enough of a population to manage.'
And then there's Australia. The region needs Australian leadership because it is Australia which remains the region's largest trading partner, investor and aid donor and because Australia is big and has a seat at the G20 and a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. It is Australia which does the heavy lifting in funding regional initiatives. The financial contributions to regional initiatives of China, Russia and, at the Pacific Islands Development Forum, the Gulf States, are not in the same league as those Australia makes. It is also Australia which has the diplomatic weight and the will to argue on behalf of Pacific Islands in international forums.
But Pacific Island countries should have a voice that is different to that of Australia and New Zealand. It is difficult to align the priorities of small island developing states with those of OECD countries like Australia and New Zealand, which is part of the reason behind some countries' frustration with the Pacific Islands Forum. The growing influence of emerging economies in the international development agenda also opens new opportunities for Pacific Island countries to explore new development paths, different from those advocated by Australia and New Zealand.
Promoting a Pacific Islands agenda was part of the motivation behind Bainimarama's PIDF but it is not clear why the region needs yet another institution. Surely more distinctive, effective and visionary regional leadership could achieve the same objective.
The most important meeting for determining the regional agenda, the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Summit in Majuro (3-6 September), this year coincides with the G20 Leaders' Summit in St Petersburg (5-6 September). This clash affects only the Australian prime minister, who will attend neither summit because of the 7 September election. Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama cannot go to Majuro as Fiji remains suspended from the Forum.
PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is on record as saying that it is important to maintain the integrity of the Pacific Islands Forum. In the absence of the Australian and Fiji leaders, this year's Forum in Majuro offers O'Neill an opportunity to demonstrate the substance behind PNG's regional leadership ambitions and put himself forward as a visionary regional statesman. The September summit could be PNG's chance to shine and to help restore confidence in the Forum itself.
Photo by Flickr user BYU-Hawaii.