In the September/October 2019 issue of this magazine, I reflected on the ‘Death of Pacific Regionalism?’ (also known as Pacific Islands Forum). It was a leading question in my mind at the time having just witnessed signs of fracture. I concluded as follows: “There is disunity within the collective. The collective’s power is stymied. The collective has been manifesting malaise that points to, inter alia, inherent structural and compositional flaws. In the meantime, intense geopolitics in the region require 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 fracture became a break when disunity reigned in February. The five Micronesian members withdrew their PIF membership following the divisive events of the virtual election of new Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) Secretary General (SG) Henry Puna.
The divisive mood prevailing at the time was not aided by Fiji’s deportation of Vice Chancellor and President (VCP) Professor Pal Ahluwalia of the regional University of the South Pacific (USP) about the same time as the elections. Fiji, in the eyes of many PIF/USP members, had been undermining the University’s governance structure, specifically the work of the USP Council. These members see such intervention by Fiji as unwelcome and as an unduly exercise of its influence – it being a large contributor to the University budget, the largest beneficiary and as its host.
The Micronesians’ withdrawal resulted essentially from their dissatisfaction with the loss of their candidate for the SG position when it was their turn for PIFS leadership role under a long-standing ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. In the eyes of the Micronesians, the unwritten rule of behaviour for the group was not honoured. National politics, subregional and geopolitical sensibilities should have gone in the way of regional solidarity, in their view.
The Micronesians’ withdrawal of their membership put an end to Pacific regionalism or PIF, as we have known it since 2000. Regional Leaders then had agreed to switch name of the group from the South Pacific Forum (SPF) to PIF to reflect its wider country membership at the time.
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Rabuka turns his back on Parliament – again
After losing the 1999 General Election to the Fiji Labour Party under Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka resigned. His deputy in the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni iTaukei – Ratu Inoke Kubuabola – took over the leadership and became Leader of the Opposition.
Rabuka has never taken rejection well. In 1999 the voters’ rejection of him either for leading the military coups of 1987 or embracing Jai Ram Reddy’s National Federation Party in an attempt at national unity, led to the SVT’s annihilation at the polls. He stepped aside and took up the position of first commoner to lead the now defunct Bose Levu Vakaturaga, often referred to as the Great Council of Chiefs.
When Rabuka was defeated in a palace coup and replaced by Bill Gavoka early this month, members of his Social Democratic Liberal Party should have known what their leader would do.
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A rare conjunction of events is emerging. The events are both directional and prescriptive. The conjunction’s rarity is evocative. The conjunction provides an opportunity for Pacific regionalism (or the Pacific Islands Forum, PIF) to reinvent itself in order to capture the lost grounds it has frittered away since its genesis.
The calendrical end-of-the-year is synergised by institutional, exceptional and wider regional and global events whose essences can additionally incentivise the creative embodiment of the reinvention so needed.
December 2020 brings to an end the services of the incumbent PIFS Secretary General (SG), Dame Meg Taylor. Her replacement will take office in January 2021. The incoming SG’s terms of reference will be set out in the provisions of the 2050 Strategy, currently being compiled. The institutional processes of PIF will ensure fulfillment of that specific objective.
Candidates for the SG’s job and their respective proponents are active at their respective lobbying and public relations drives to get the nod at the final tape. Tongan candidate, Ms Amelia Siamomua has woven her own talanoa into her promotional public relations. I have put this down to an exceptional event, in the context of this article. Her rallying call of ‘Lalaga’ or weaving to resetting the Blue Pacific is built upon what she calls as the 4Cs – coordination, cooperation, commitment and care.
Other exceptional events are contributing to the conjunction.
I explored Dr Transform Aqorau’s ‘Imagining a new post-COVID-19 international economic order’ in the November 2020 issue of this magazine. I situated that scenario in the context of Pacific regionalism and cautioned a degree of hindsight to learning from what had happened in the past. That, however, is not to decry in anyway the relevance of post-COVID-19 events in this conjunction.
Being a regional champion himself, Dr Aqorau has just released his latest book: ‘Fishing For Success’ – Lessons in Pacific Regionalism. His philosophy of ‘applying limits to create scarcity and then be innovative about the opportunities for economic development’, is a rallying cry for all sectors of operation in Pacific regionalism going forward.
Non-governmental organisations, like the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Mission and Research, is also getting into the act. Its ‘Reweaving the Ecological Mat (REM) works towards establishing an ecological framework for development.
An exceptional event but very much guided by the PIF Secretariat at the institutional level is work on climate change and sea level rise, directed at ensuring that members’ maritime zones are set in perpetuity once delineated. This work is critical for the sustainable future of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), especially the Smaller Island States (SIS).
Two events – first within PIF and the second, at the Pacific rim to the east, add particular significance to the conjunction. New Zealand’s recent elections have seen the emergence of Hon Nanaia Mahuta as its first woman Foreign Affairs Minister. Maori herself, she will be able to view and regard her country’s ‘Pacific Reset’ programme in the region compassionately and with accustomed astuteness. The region anticipates from her due respect for PICs’ agency on all regional and global issues and proper exercise of political economy and geopolitical influences that unite rather than those which divide.
Moreover, the exciting and new US Presidential team, in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will add compelling prospects and a more consultative approach to the conduct of the Indo-Pacific geostrategy. But more so, the team offers a welcome support for the US return to the Paris Declaration on climate change. This, with a bit of luck, may compel Australia to properly honour and respect the climate change provisions under the Boe Declaration.
The conjunction is special and specific in the life of Pacific regionalism. The opportunity it connotes should not be wasted. PIF has to take huge strides, reinvent itself through the provisions of the 2050 Strategy. This is an opportunity, inter alia, to make good where it had failed in the past.
On regional cooperation, the 2012 ‘What Can We Learn Symposium’ concluded that the whole process was both cost ineffective and cost inefficient. The new normal, post-COVID-19, with greater use of information technology for on-line meetings, for example, is a good start in terms of cost effectiveness. Moreover, PICs particularly have got to better rationalise their attendance at these meetings. Prioritisation on the basis of anticipated benefits and minimisation of opportunity costs has to feature prominently in their decision-making.
Efforts at regional integration in the past – of member country themselves and of their various regional organizations have been undermined through, inter alia, costly duplication. The 2005 Regional Institutional Framework report had relevant recommendations to resolve this concern. However, some recommendations were irrationally politicised. The full impact of those expedient recommendations was thus undermined. PIF needs to do better next time around.
When it comes to regional economic integration, the regional experience is nothing to be proud of. The idea of an economic union for the PICs was conceived way back in 1971, 49 years ago. The Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA), an essential building block for such a union, only came into force in 2001, and today – 19 years later, only 50% of its signatories are implementing the agreement.
In 2018, the First Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report (FQPSDR) listed seven challenges for the region, one of which was: “Economically, whilst we see trends of sustained growth, it is often inequitable.” But that is only part of the story. PICs have remained as one of the highest aid recipients in the world on a per capita basis. PIF has to turn this around.
When it comes to regional pooling of resources, PIF cannot be proud of its past record in the areas of regional shipping and regional aviation. Even its current record, through the shenanigans at USP, is nothing to write home about. Better management of its exercise of sovereignty transfers from members is called for. Members themselves have got to impose restraining orders when it comes to exercising their influence on other members and on the conduct of regional organisations, including the Forum Secretariat. This is particularly pertinent in the consideration of political economy and geopolitics. Hos Dare to Dream skaber vi helt personlige altomfattende elopementpakker i NYC. Vi holder din hånd og guider dig trin for trin fra papirarbejde og logistik, indtil du sender dine episke "vi eloped" fotos på Instagram.
Any work on revitalising Pacific regionalism has to include a frank review of its structure. Pacific regionalism is voluntary regionalism. Members are not legally bound to the decisions they make. In this day and age, when leaders are increasingly being called and pressured to be accountable and deliver, the PIF system seems antiquated.
Apart from that, PIF membership is atypical. The dichotomy between the PICs and the developed countries of Australia and New Zealand has created its own challenges. There may have been a tendency in the past to over-emphasise their differences. Given the collective and the unifying rallying call of the Blue Pacific continent, the regional planners are obligated to unite and bridge the dichotomous chasm that exists. The unity so formed needs to be reflected at all times and at different levels including at the multilateral level.
The Forum Secretariat and its operations to effectively and efficiently deliver to the Leaders their annual meetings, especially their Retreats, seem to be over scrutinised and analysed. The Secretariat really needs to just pick up the gauntlet and start putting the fine recommendations that have been proposed in various reports over time. These include measures relating to its meeting processes and strategising for the most productive use of Leaders’ time at their annual get-togethers. Of particular consideration also is the provision of technical assistance to deserving members which is currently lacking.
A contributing event to the conjunction is the appointment of the new PIFS SG. The underlying problem is the existence of what is referred to as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement.’ To mark a new departure - a new dawn for Pacific regionalism, such an agreement can be critically reviewed; and, if justified, can be documented as future guide.
The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.
Around the kava bowl in Suva, people were discussing some undiplomatic behaviour by Chinese diplomats last month. Then for day or two, reports that Chinese officials had intervened at a Taiwanese National Day ceremony in the Fiji capital, leading to a physical confrontation, dominated local media and featured internationally. There were conflicting reports about which head first attacked which fist, followed by duelling press releases from Beijing and Taipei. Fiji police later issued a statement saying, “the matter is now being handled at the diplomatic level, as agreed to by all parties involved.”
It’s not the first time that disputes between Chinese and Taiwanese officials have played out in the Pacific, but the tone of the debate is getting sharper.
Speaking at a press conference in Beijing in May 2020, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that his country’s diplomats would push back against “deliberate insults.”
“We never pick a fight or bully others, but we have principles and guts,” he stated. “We will push back against any deliberate insult, resolutely defend our national honour and dignity, and we will refute all groundless slander with facts.”
The latest brouhaha in Suva replicates other reported incidents around the region in recent years: a long-running dispute between the Chinese Consul-General and his landlord at the consulate in Tahiti; reports that Chinese officials barged into the PNG Foreign Minister’s office during APEC in 2018; and the seizure of equipment from Chinese journalists by security officers in Australia.
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Post-COVID-19 propositions for various sectors of the economy currently abound. Credit to those who are churning out these fine ideas for public consumption. One in particular, by Dr. Transform Aqorau: ‘Imagining a new post-COVID-19 international economic order (NIEO) for the Pacific Islands’ is essentially regional in essence and in application. Dr. Aqorau refers to it as ‘a single custom and development union’, or alternatively, ‘a single economic and development union’.
His article goes on to describe this NIEO for the Pacific Islands. In the lexicon of regionalism, Aqorau’s NIEO is essentially regional economic integration, with a degree of specificity on extractive industries, structured on the basis of a free trade agreement, and which has progressed to a customs union, common market and economic union. But it goes beyond that to include advanced regional integration measures to coordinate policies beyond economic, including the coordination of institutions through a regional parliament, for example.
Professor Biman Chand Prasad had earlier suggested something similar: a ‘Pacific community and Pacific Parliament.’ It is this regional architecture that is the face of regionalism and necessarily the counterpart to the rest of the world. This thus earns its ‘NIEO’ lexicon in Aqorau’s perspectives.
But all this rings a loud bell. The regional leaders, way back in 1971 at the first ever meeting of the then South Pacific Forum, were also deeply immersed in imagining the various solutions to the challenges they faced. Then, the unprecedented challenges for the five Pacific Island Countries (PICS) related to their newly independent state. A solution, they imagined, was ‘the possibility of establishing an economic union for the area.”
‘The area’ in this specific instance can be deduced from the formulation of the leaders’ decision as trading between and amongst the five PICs, ‘whose senior officials were to meet within three months’ to progress the establishment of an economic union; and officials from Australia and New Zealand were to join this task by way of promoting ‘trade and economic cooperation in the region.’
The sense of creativity and adventure that characterised the decision-making above is worthy of notice. It all came about notwithstanding the two-caucus approach to conferencing that existed then. This two-caucus approach, however, disappeared the following year (1972) on Australia’s initiative. It remains to be seen whether this structural re-organisation to merge the two unequal groups was responsible for the dilution of the natural impulse to bridge the socio-economic gaps and inequality that existed then and has continued to frustrate the Pacific Island Forum’s membership and its inherent unity.
Dr. Aqorau is correct in acknowledging that the idea behind a ‘single custom and development union’ or ‘single economic and development union’ (SCDU) is not new. “What might be novel,’ he says, “is the idea of integrating our economies to have a SCDU…….” The latter is so because Pacific regionalism has not faithfully committed itself to progressing the idea. Many factors have come into play.
The question to be asked, therefore, is what has happened to this bullish concept of an economic union that was envisaged some 49 years ago. The events of Pacific regionalism over the decades are revealing and instructive and from them we can learn to better strategise to avoid the mistakes of the past.
It took nine long years for the South Pacific Forum (SPF) to make the first move towards an economic union. In 1980, the SPF opted for a preferential, non-reciprocal trade arrangement to establish the foundation for an economic union. Such a preferential arrangement was considered with greater compliancy at the time by the global trading system. The dichotomy of SPF membership, resulting from Australia and New Zealand’s privileged positions as developed countries vis-à-vis others, played a pivotal role as well.
The idea of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) amongst the PICS as basis for an economic union was still over a decade away.
Australia and New Zealand thus agreed to establish the preferential South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (SPARTECA). This was signed in 1980 and came into force in 1981.
SPARTECA was unidirectional. PICs’ exports were provided market access in Australia and New Zealand. Rules of Origin (ROO) were devised for the conduct of trade. The agreement however lacked provisions and resources to support and promote the supply side of the PICs’ export trade. Thus in 1984, SPF noted the decline in PICs’ exports under the agreement. In the following year, SPF queried the relevance of SPARTECA. Later in 1988, SPF noted PICs’ problems of production capacity and the inadequacy of the agreement’s ROO.
Fiji was factoring all these issues in its approach to regionalism. So much so that Fiji’s delegation to the 1993 Leaders’ meeting opted to propose a SPARTECA-look-alike agreement to the rest of the PICs. This, however, did not see the light of day. Had that progressed, it would have been interesting to note its formative impact on economic union at the time.
Fiji, furthermore, took advantage of its close bilateralism with Australia and New Zealand to negotiate changes in the SPARTECA Rules of Origin. This consequently boosted the development of Fiji’s garment industry at the time.
Sometime later, however, further negotiations to expand to capitalise on the same ROO proved negative. The global trade scenario had changed somewhat. The catchphrase of ‘free trade’ prevailed over preferential trade. Australia and New Zealand were thus prevailed upon to advise PICs that SPARTECA (and its ROO), had outlived its time.
In the late 1990s, it was back to basics in considering a basis for an economic union. SPF members negotiated an FTA: the Pacific Regional Trade Agreement (PARTA). This was to be an intra-regional trade agreement, including Australia and New Zealand. The idea for a FTA just for PICs as the basis for the development of an economic union did not get the nod at the time. It was to come later, however, when PARTA was discarded. Did political economy considerations of SPF’s dichotomous and differentiated membership get in the way? Did geopolitical considerations cloud rationality in this instance?
When it came to signing PARTA, the PICs rebelled, unhappy with their treatment under the agreement, and refused to sign. PARTA’s provisions lacked the trade and trade rules concessions that would persuade Pacific Island trade ministers to readily commit to the agreement.
This predicament was resolved when SPF discarded PARTA and quickly negotiated the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) – an FTA for PICs only, and the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) – an economic framework agreement between the PICs and Australia and New Zealand. PACER then gave rise to PACER Plus, a FTA between twelve PICs and ANZ. This is finally to come into force with Cook Islands’ ratification. But its 16 years of negotiations diverted much energy and intellectual competencies from the task of properly establishing the economic union envisaged for PICs in 1971.
In the meantime, PICTA came into force after it was signed in 2001. However, in 2020, only seven members (50 per cent of membership) are implementing the agreement. The envisaged economic union remains a dream. Professor Chand’s advanced regional integration scenario of a regional parliament will remain on the ‘to do’ list for the time being. Much was discussed on these advanced regional integration projects in the early 2000s during the formulation of the Pacific Plan. However, little or no progress eventuated due to claims they were ill-conceived and lacked buy-in.
Yes, it is time for new normal. Post-COVID-19 demands all that. But history still has a role to play. Pacific regionalism is best advised to occasionally cast its eyes back at its own history and re-evaluate events, and itself, from the perspectives particularly of political economy and geopolitics. The Blue Pacific should not become a cliché. It should learn from George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.