Death of Pacific Regionalism?

THE theme going into Tuvalu’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting from 12-16 August 2019 was: ‘Securing our Future in the Pacific.’ This was to be uniquely focussed and framed around climate change. Even the China issue, the other matter of disquiet in the region, was to be side-lined on this occasion. From what transpired from the meeting – what was said and the manner of the utterances, the results clearly fell short of expectations. Aided somewhat by crude remarks by those not even at the meeting and the immeasurable damage they caused to regional and interpersonal relations, it can be concluded that the realisation of that theme was hugely frustrated.

The frustration peaked when leaders realised that when it came to a regional threat that had been collectively acknowledged as existential, there was still a deep and wide gulf that existed regarding how to contain the threat. The gulf emerged from the inability of leaders to reconcile regionality of issues and solutions with their respective national/factional politics. The politics appeared to be infused with a duality of meaning that engendered indifference. The gulf may not be bridgeable.

The implication therefore is that the Forum has not been able to secure the future it wants. The region remains unsafe. Climate change continues as an existential threat. Sea levels will continue to rise to inundate atoll nations and coastal urban conurbations. Viewed in the context of the pedestrian growth of Pacific regionalism in the last 48 years, and given the inherent contradictions of the structure and composition of the Forum, and the renewed vigour of misgivings expressed on the utility Death of Pacific Regionalism? and coherency of regionalism itself, it can be said that we are seeing the death throes of Pacific regionalism.

The question on the coherence and sustainability of Pacific regionalism is not new. Some regional commentators have questioned the wisdom of including Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) – developed countries and OECD members, in the South Pacific Forum established in 1971 that comprised five Pacific Island Countries (PICs) – developing and least developed countries. The wide diversity of developmental status of members and differential degrees of integration into the world economy have created a dichotomy between ANZ and the PICs. This has caused great difficulties in reconciling and managing the interests of members.

And when you factor in the political economy aspects of the Forum, you can then appreciate the immensity of the forces that tend to divide the members rather than those that unite them. Further, one is also able to see the disparate distribution of power, sphere of influence, incentives and resources across the membership.

The fragility of the situation depicted above is not helped by the kind of regionalism that members have chosen to adopt. Pacific regionalism is voluntary. Members are not legally committed to any of the decisions they make at the regional level. The implementation of regional decisions at the national levels, with full support of concomitant national policies, structures and resources is a luxury that, unfortunately, lags far behind expectations. Consequently, there are implementation gaps galore at the national levels.

Furthermore, Pacific regionalism has been bedevilled in the past by its inconsistency of meeting the requirements of the various tests required for efficient and effective regional action. This included its inability to effectively manage the risks involved in the transfer of national sovereignty to the regional level.

The values and objectives of “The Framework for Pacific Regionalism’ (FPR) that replaced the ‘Pacific Plan’ are being undermined. One of the FPR’s values is ‘mutual accountability and respect’. The divide caused by the lack of unity on climate change as an existential threat under the Boe Declaration has put paid to this worthy principle. Similarly, the ‘integrity of our vast ocean and our island resources’ is being undermined through members’ factional interests that evince regional incoherence and deep-seated division.

The FPR’s Objective of ‘Economic growth that is inclusive and equitable’ is failing the region, according to the First Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report. As regards ‘sustainable development,’ the United Nations regional chief said last July that ‘Asia and Pacific (are) on course to miss all Sustainable Development Goals.’

The question raised above and its implications on the regional architecture of Pacific regionalism has provoked wide discussions in the past. Fiji’s Prime Minister (PM) Bainimarama, for example in 2014, had raised a question on ANZ membership of the Forum and decided to boycott all Forum Leaders’ meetings. When questioned on the reason he was attending the Funafuti meeting in August, he replied that the Forum was reaching a new stage in its development with both ANZ picking up on their respective relations with PICs with Australia’s Step Up and New Zealand’s Pacific Reset strategies.

However, his sense of revitalised optimism evaporated in Tuvalu. He is now, again, calling for a review of the late regional architecture. In the same vein, late Prime Minister Pohiva of Tonga was not equally dispirited by the shenanigans of Funafuti. He wondered whether regionalism was just a myth. Coincidently, however, PM Bainimarama’s call for a review of the regional architecture has come after the Forum Leaders had agreed to developing a 2050 strategic plan for the Forum.

Obviously, the details of the plan have yet to be worked out. Given all that has happened – the highs and lows since 1971, the lessons picked up along the way, the big questions about the utility and ethics of regionalism itself, the efficacy of the Forum’s current membership composition, the new regional and global challenges and related geopolitics, it is prudent that whilst formulating a new long-term plan, a new regional architecture is also considered.

In this exercise, bold decisions to frame a new architecture are called for. Ideas have been presented in the past by various regional commentators. PM Sopoanga himself conceived his idea of the ‘United States of the Pacific’ recently and I have discussed the same, (see June 2019). 

Tim Marshall wrote in 2015 that an unwritten law in diplomacy is that when faced with what’s considered an existential threat, a great power will use force. In the context of the Forum, by way of an analogy, the members declared climate change as an existential threat during the 2018 Leaders’ Forum in Nauru. They opted therefore to garner their collective force of intent, purpose and number to create the power to counter the threat through the provisions of the Boe Declaration that was adopted at the meeting. However, that public gesture of collective force in adoption of the Declaration did not translate to Leader’s collective determination to make good its provisions. 

There is disunity within the collective. The collective’s power is stymied. The collective itself has been manifesting malaise that points to, inter alia, inherent structural and compositional flaws. In the meantime, intense geopolitics in the region require a self-re-examination of the Forum with fresh vigour, purpose and destiny. The proposed 2050 strategic plan needs to look seriously at refitting Pacific regionalism anew for the new challenges tomorrow.

* The author is a former Fiji ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.