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.
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.