Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The pointy end for the Melanesian Spearhead Group

The forum has past success in mediating bitter disputes, but faces a sharp test with regional independence movements.

New Caledonia (Photo: NASA Visible Earth)
New Caledonia (Photo: NASA Visible Earth)
Published 12 Sep 2018 

The biggest diplomatic row between Fiji and Vanuatu in modern times was not over climate change, good governance, or Chinese investment in the South Pacific, but biscuits.

Two MSG members are facing independence votes within the next year or so, from opposite sides of the ballot box.

Vanuatu unilaterally applied a ban on Fijian biscuits in 2005, and Fiji responded by banning kava imports from Vanuatu. By the end of the crisis, a Fijian biscuit company had lost a dozen staff, and more than FJ$2 million in spoiled produce, and low-income kava farmers in Vanuatu lost access to their most important market.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a sub-regional grouping of the South West Pacific, was the forum in which the two countries eventually resolved their dispute. The MSG introduced a free trade area, which has so far avoided another biscuit war. But the MSG now needs new political mechanisms to cope with the changing geopolitical landscape in the South Pacific if it is to continue promoting open trade.

Early successes and new challenges

The MSG has in the past facilitated meaningful engagement in the South Pacific. In 2010, Solomon Islands hosted a traditional reconciliation ceremony when Vanuatu refused to hand over the MSG chairmanship to Fiji, citing concerns that Fiji had yet to transition to democracy after a military coup four years earlier – this was particularly significant at a time when Fiji was suspended from most major international forums.

The MSG also encouraged the professionalisation of the independence movement in West Papua, a province of Indonesia: three parties merged to form the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) in 2014, and it applied for full membership status at the most recent gathering in February.

It may be waiting for some time.

Two MSG members are facing independence votes within the next year or so, from opposite sides of the ballot box. The Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) will campaign for New Caledonia to declare independence from France in November, but one poll last year indicated that half of the voters will choose to remain a part of France, while a fifth are undecided.

Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, is expected to hold a vote on the island of Bougainville next June, which is widely expected to demand independence for the restive mineral-rich province. Both votes present problems.

Risk it for the biscuit

IfNew Caledonia chooses to remain a part of France, it may well ask why the FLNKS is entitled to represent it within the MSG. If Bougainville follows suit, the MSG will be placed into a difficult position: PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill may not accept an independent Bougainville, but the MSG opposes what it sees as colonial rule in the South Pacific.

Vanuatu has made the independence of West Papua from Indonesia a foreign policy objective, but Indonesia is unlikely to take kindly to a separatist province being accorded full membership while it holds only associate membership status. Further compounding the issue, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu has questioned the relevance of the MSG as a regional organisation – the ULMWP may well ask why it should continue to direct time and resources into MSG membership if its main political sponsor is losing faith in the only regional forum where it has permanent representation.

In addition, existing members are not meeting their financial commitments to the MSG. Funds are available – China and the European Union have previously made donations, and PNG offered Fiji approximately A$20 million in support of the latter's return to democratic elections in 2014 – but each contributing member has its own domestic priorities to consider.

Leaders will need a policy roadmap to manage the emergence of new states in order to justify spending political capital on funding the MSG.

Sharpening the spearhead

There are opportunities to do more. Firstly, the MSG should extend the benefits of existing MSG initiatives specifically to New Caledonians and Bougainville residents. This will demonstrate that the MSG has something valuable to offer, while it works on a roadmap to full membership for new states in the South Pacific.

Benefits could include separate quotas for New Caledonia and Bougainville as part of the MSG Skills Movement Scheme, which aims to promote labour mobility, and considering applications for observer status.

Secondly, the MSG should grant associate membership status to the ULMWP, on par with Indonesia. This will hopefully encourage Vanuatu to stay engaged, while alleviating the concerns of PNG and Fiji, which enjoy stronger trade relationships with Indonesia.

This will in turn ensure continued dialogue on an important issue that is unlikely to get much airtime elsewhere, such as the Pacific Islands Forum.

Finally – and perhaps most critically – members need to meet their financial commitments.

If donations from outside are considered politically unpalatable, MSG member states will either have to start reaching into their biscuit tins, or admit that an inability to collectively manage these upcoming challenges is how the cookie finally crumbles.

Pacific Research Program

You may also be interested in