Charles Prestidge-King is a former editorial staff member at East Asia Forum. He is based in Honiara and has contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Amid domestic turmoil, Solomon Islands is due to host the long-postponed Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting next week.
The MSG, a trade, political and cultural forum for Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the FLNKS movement in New Caledonia, looks likely to resolve the impasse between two of its member nations. In July, Edward Natapei, Vanuatu's erstwhile Prime Minister, refused to hand the rotating Chairmanship to Fiji. He blamed Fiji's regime, telling media that 'there are basic fundamental principles and values of democracy and good governance that our organisation is built on, and we must continue to uphold them.'
The Melanesian Spearhead Group is increasingly important in its own right, and part of a broader trend towards sub-regional institutions in the Pacific. Its member states are the largest and most powerful in the region, and its trade provisions, though limited, are expanding quickly. A recent report by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy labelled it an increasingly 'effective policy broker' for Melanesian states, especially since the signing of the MSG Agreement in 2007.
In an effort to resolve the deadlock, Solomon Islands proposed that it would take over interim chairmanship, and then hand it over to Fiji. But MSG leaders got together during the UN General Assembly in October and issued a joint communiqué explaining that they would resolve their differences at a meeting in Honiara in December, and that Chairmanship would be passed directly to Fiji, as planned.
The centrepiece is to be a customary reconciliation ceremony, held between Fiji and Vanuatu. Fiji said that Vanuatu would apologise for its stance on the Chairmanship, and Fiji would apologise to Vanuatu. Fiji might have leaned on Vanuatu slightly, but it all seemed amicable enough.
Things have not gone entirely according to plan. Earlier this month, Edward Natapei was ousted by a no-confidence vote in Vanuatu's Parliament hours after he left for COP16 in Cancun (next time, take out travel insurance). Some blamed his handling of the MSG Chairmanship. For his part, Fiji's leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama has said he won't attend the event because he felt the reconciliation – he called it an apology – should be held in Fiji. He'll send his Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.
Natapei and Bainamara may be absent, but plenty are jostling to attend. The American Ambassador in Port Moresby has requested an invite. So has Timor-Leste, as part of its efforts to attain observer status in the Group.
Melanesia's friends and neighbours are watching. Despite its rising influence, the MSG has lost momentum because of the postponements. Melanesia must now take this opportunity to show others that the MSG can function smoothly and effectively as a regional bloc. It's time for the Group to resolve this impasse and get on with it.
Photo by Flickr user huskyboy.