Pacific Islands Forum foreign ministers are meeting in Sydney this week but may struggle for the spotlight as regional attention is focused on the Pacific Games, being hosted by Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby hosted a stunning opening ceremony on 4 July. It was one of several events this year which the Papua New Guinea Government and in particular Prime Minister Peter O'Neill will use to project the country's growing prominence in the region. Papua New Guinea will also host the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Summit in September along with celebrations on the occasion of 40 years of independence from Australia.
Prime Minister O'Neill sought to inspire the region in his address at the opening ceremony of the Games, saying the event would bring strong bonds between people, teams and nations. He promised that the world-class facilities PNG had built for the Games would benefit the region for 'generations to come' and said with 'global economic growth centred on our part of the world' it was a 'great time to live in the Pacific'.
In the lead-up to the Games, O'Neill has been busy bolstering his regional leadership credentials. At the biennial Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Leaders' summit in Honiara on 25 June, O'Neill brokered the admission of Indonesia as an Associate member of the Group, 'representing the five Melanesian Provinces in Indonesia'.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) had applied for membership too, an initiative supported by civil society groups across Melanesia. West Papuan hopes of securing full membership had been high following an impassioned speech by the MSG summit host and new chair, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. But it was O'Neill's formulation which won the day, and the ULMWP was instead accorded the status of an 'Observer member representing Melanesians living abroad.' O'Neill's position is that there is no collective voice among the West Papuan political movements so it is not appropriate for a group that is not elected to represent West Papua at the sub-regional level.
O'Neill broke news of this decision via a Facebook post before the MSG leaders addressed a press conference or released their communiqué in Honiara. This was important. That he made his announcement separately and not in concert with the other leaders suggests he wanted to demonstrate his own role in brokering the outcome. Given that so much of the advocacy for the West Papuan cause is now conducted via social media channels (including in Papua New Guinea), announcing the MSG's decision on Facebook also helped O'Neill show he is in touch with his constituency.
O'Neill had already promised Papua New Guinea's support for Indonesia's associate membership during President Joko Widodo's visit to Port Moresby on 11-12 May. He followed up by announcing the proposal at the Pacific Leaders' Meeting in Japan on 22-23 May. O'Neill made it clear in Japan that Pacific Island countries had to deal with the Indonesian President and elected leaders of the Indonesian provinces with Melanesian populations if they wanted to see social conditions for West Papuans improve. He also set a tone for his expectations about how Pacific Island countries should deal with 'issues such as climate change, asylum seekers, West Papua' and their interactions with each other, stressing that 'playing emotional politics through the media is not the way to manage international issues in the modern world.'
Papua New Guinea has further promoted its leadership through a series of bilateral initiatives in the region. Prime Minister O'Neill wants to bestow the region's elder statesman, long-serving Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa, with PNG's highest award, the Order of Logohu, during the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Meeting. Papua New Guinea provided disaster relief to Vanuatu following Cyclone Pam in April, including a $2.5 million aid package and an assessment team. The Papua New Guinea Government is delivering a 5-year development assistance program worth about $49 million to Solomon Islands.
Most of the credit for Papua New Guinea's new leadership role in the region should go to Prime Minister O'Neill. He has made a number of important speeches and interventions in 2015 both at home and abroad that are clearly focused on building and securing recognition of PNG's reputation as a regional leader and projecting his views on how PNG and its Pacific neighbours should interact on the global stage.
PNG is by far the largest Pacific Island nation in terms of population size, GDP and land size, and arguably more deserving of recognition as a regional leader than Fiji, which has historically played that role. But PNG's national development challenges are so much more significant in scale than those faced by any other island nation in the region. It is far from guaranteed that the Prime Minister can rely on support from his ministers, government agencies and the public, all of whom are necessarily more focused on domestic priorities, to reinforce his regional leadership ambitions.