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The state of the Pacific as the 2019 Forum convenes

This year’s gathering will hear new, old, and recycled ideas, but the ones that make a difference may not make the news.

Flags of the Pacific Island Forum members (Photo: Mike Leyral via Getty)
Flags of the Pacific Island Forum members (Photo: Mike Leyral via Getty)
Published 14 Aug 2019 

The Prime Minister of tiny Tuvalu, a low-lying, reef-fringed island nation with only an 11,000 population, will hope to refocus attention on climate change and the threat of rising sea levels as leaders from the Pacific Islands Forum gather this week. But inevitably other issues will crowd the agenda. The annual Forum meetings are now occasions of great international interest, and substantial delegations will attend from the United States, China, and other regional players.

Strategic anxiety has cast a long shadow. Last year’s event was held in Nauru – which recognises Taiwan rather than mainland China – and featured a major bust-up after Chinese protests about allegedly being denied speaking rights. As at the November 2018 APEC summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, China is playing an increasingly assertive role in Pacific diplomacy.

This year’s Forum comes in the wake of promises of a major re-orientation in both Australian and New Zealand policy towards the Pacific Islands. The so-called “step up” in Australia has been overtly associated with concerns about the expansion of Chinese influence in the region, and there have also been more occasional official comments in that direction from New Zealand.

Both Australia and the US are concerned about whether Solomon Islands chooses to switch recognition from Taiwan to China, which has been a matter of political debate in that country since the April election that returned Manasseh Sogavare for a fourth non-successive term as Prime Minister. Six of the Pacific Island micro-states recognise Taiwan: Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau. A switch by any one may stimulate others.

Funafuti prepares for the Pacific leaders to arrive (Photo: ForumSEC/Twitter)

For all the great-power attention, after a year that has seen the November independence referendum in New Caledonia and the end of Peter O’Neill’s government in PNG, domestic development remains a key concern for the island leaders. That largely explains the attractions of Chinese aid and investment, as well as the strategy of using this to court greater assistance from Australia and New Zealand.

This is the first Forum since the December 2006 coup in Fiji to be attended by Fiji’s former military commander turned civilian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama and may signal some warming of Fiji’s fraught post-coup relations with its antipodean neighbors. Yet that newfound bonhomie on the international front has not been matched by Bainimarama’s political relationships at home.

On 9 August, Fiji’s Prime Minister assaulted an opposition leader outside parliament. This was no ancient enemy. Pio Tikoduadua is a former senior military officer who supported the political change initiated by the December 2006 coup. He served first as Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and then as a cabinet minister in Bainimarama’s first elected government before resigning in May 2015, purportedly owing to ill health, but later joining the smaller of the two opposition parties in parliament. The new order is hostile not just to its longstanding foes but also its wayward former allies.

There will be announcements of new, old, and repackaged initiatives, along with efforts to allay or circumvent criticism, and rounds of engagement with the many post-Forum dialogue partners who nowadays throng to each year’s regional meeting.

The region’s leaders in Funafuti will welcome a new major player in the Pacific Forum. The May 2019 change in government in PNG was seen by cynics as a mere rearrangement of the deck chairs, with key participants in Peter O’Neill’s 2011–19 government retaining powerful positions. But new Prime Minister James Marape has promised a new broom, and there have been at least some promising signs (just as there were in the early days of O’Neill’s government).

As with the O’Neill government, the critical question for Marape will be the handling of corruption, not because of external pressure on that front (nowadays much diminished), but due to domestic concern about the antics of PNG elites during the country’s liquid natural gas boom. Successive mineral resources booms have delivered little to ordinary Papua New Guineans.

While New Caledonia navigates two likely further referendums on the independence question over coming years, Bougainville, another island that was wracked by violent conflict during the 1980s and 1990s, will face its own independence referendum later this year. Like New Caledonia, Bougainville reached a peace agreement that gave the island some autonomy and put off a vote on independence until the distant future. Unlike New Caledonia, it does not have the advantage of high per capita GDP driven by plentiful aid subventions from Paris.

Also unlike New Caledonia, the Bougainville referendum is non-binding, leaving open the possibility that even if Bougainvilleans vote “yes” to independence, the PNG parliament may decide against. If Bougainville does become independent, it will struggle to obtain the financial resources necessary to fund a new state, at least unless the Panguna copper mine reopens. Yet it was disputes centred on the Panguna mine that first sparked the 1988–97 conflict. And it was at least in part fears of repeated instability that led Rio Tinto to abandon its shares in Bougainville Copper Ltd in June 2016.   

At this week’s summit in Tuvalu, climate change, West Papua, and the China issue will figure prominently and publicly, as they have done at the Forum’s previous annual gatherings. There will be announcements of new, old, and repackaged initiatives, along with efforts to allay or circumvent criticism, and rounds of engagement with the many post-Forum dialogue partners who nowadays throng to each year’s regional meeting.

Whether any of this will make a substantial difference for the region is uncertain, but the attendant international journalists will seize on any newsworthy incident, event, or announcement to satisfy hungry editors back home. The key decisions or quarrels usually occur behind closed doors at the forum leaders’ meeting and only later filter through insider leaks and via the “coconut wireless” to a more restricted regional audience.

Pacific Research Program

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