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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In my last article in this magazine, I referred to the structure of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and its system of decision-making as being antiquated. This was on the basis that PIF’s type of regionalism is voluntary. Members are not legally bound to the decisions they make at the regional level. I suggested the prospect of its reconsideration as a means of enhancing the benefits to members.
I also pointed to the deficiencies in regional cooperation, regional integration for example, in the last 49 years of PIF’s existence, as areas to be redressed for greater benefits to members.
The direct implication of that hinted at a decision-making process that would be a reversal of the status quo: Involuntary regionalism, which would mean binding decisions at the regional level. Furthermore, that would necessitate derogation of sufficient state power to the region to enable the latter to make those decisions.
From my perspective, as one schooled in the classical Barassa model of regionalism – linear, with regional economic integration—advanced economic union, for example—and having worked 14 years in the European Union that exemplifies such a model, my assumption of eventual derogation of power from the states to the region was one I had thought to be a natural progression for Pacific regionalism. But it is not to be.
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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.
The Pacific today faces three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and the ongoing climate crisis, and Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers will discuss all three when they meet (virtually) next week.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded the scale of the economic impact on Pacific people and communities has become clearer – and Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor says for some it is ‘catastrophic’.
Increased hunger, malnutrition and poverty is being reported by civil society organisations. Job losses, business failures and plummeting remittances are telling and industries such as the tourism sector face the prospect of decades in recovery. Governments are scrambling to put in place safety nets and cope with staggeringly bad COVID-related economic forecasts.
Dame Meg says it is time to think out of the box and act regionally.
She understands the tendency by Pacific countries to turn inwards during the pandemic.
“It is only natural when something like this happens,” she told reporters ahead of the Forum Economic Ministers’ meeting.
“We …look at what is happening to myself, what is happening to my family, what is happening to my friends, what is happening in my community, what is happening in my country.
Dame Meg Taylor says the ministers will focus on economic priorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 and recover from the pandemic to build “a strong platform for economic stability and resilience in the long term.”
She stressed the need for new and innovative approaches to development challenges based on self-reliance, pointing to the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway as an example of effective Pacific collective action.
“It is the only region in the world that has done this. And why is this important? Because it is the political space, making sure that the technical assistance can get in, medical assistance can get in, we can ship cargo and customs can be adhered to, that we can repatriate citizens, we can land aircraft, immigration facilities are all in place, and trying to make this work is no mean feat, as you will understand.”
Dame Meg is encouraging Forum members to look beyond their national boundaries, and for development partners to think beyond bilateralism, in order to facilitate “better and deeper coordination and collaboration.”
“It is, I think it is honest for me to say, that the development partners have really approached COVID with a very much bi-lateral approach. And we have watched this, and we have watched the geo-strategic issues play out.”
Dame Meg says the Forum and other regional organisations are also looking at digitalisation as a priority; to survey what infrastructure is in place or coming online plus prices and accessibility, and then explore how it can support the digital economy, health, education and other development goals.
“ I think that it is an opportunity that we need to look at. I know that development banks like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are looking at this through Southeast Asia and other countries. We have asked them to have a conversation with us in terms of what can be done in this region.
“But everything costs money and everything that we get from banks, unless it is coming from the International Development Assistance in the World Bank, everything will one day have to be paid back. This is the big issue for us in the region on how we are going to be able to service this debt over time.”
A paper on the Pacific’s own climate-infrastructure fund, the Pacific Resilience Facility, —with added content on the COVID pandemic—is also going to ministers. The Facility aims to raise US$1.5 billion and fund small projects through the interest generated.
“It is really important that we start thinking of how we can help ourselves, “ Dame Meg says.
“I think that there is a huge tendency in the International Development space every document that you pick up is about how much the Pacific relies on everybody else to do things for them.
“You know I am really sick of that! I'm sure that a lot of you who have worked around this are also tired of it too. It is not as if we are people who do not know how to look after ourselves but wherever they have been good ideas put forward, it is amazing how people think that ‘oh why did you think of that?’ And this is exactly the kind of resistance that we got on this from some of the development banks; we are doing that so why would you want to do it?
“We have got to start helping our countries get systems in place in countries where we can maximise funding that comes in so that countries can help themselves.”
Dame Meg acknowledges that thinking outside the box and building on the regional identity of the ‘Blue Pacific’ continent - launched by leaders in 2017 - is not always easy.
Sharing of experiences of individuals and of countries is important.
“I hope that this is what Forum Economic Ministers will do – to discuss and share their experiences and support each other,” she said.
Forum Economic officials meet this week, with the Ministerial due to open on Tuesday next week.
Tuvalu has asked Pacific Leaders to consider deferring the formal appointment of the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum until a face-to-face meeting next year.
Islands Business is aware of four candidates for the role; Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Marshall Islands Ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios, international civil servant to the UN and regional organisations, Tonga's international and regional civil servant Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua and former Pacific Community (SPC) Secretary General, Solomon Islander Dr Jimmie Rodgers.
However Pacnews reports that Tuvalu Prime Minister and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Kausea Natano has written to Leaders asking them to accept a proposal by Vanuatu to defer the formal, face-to-face session Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting to 2021 – to be hosted by government of Fiji.
Natano is requesting a virtual Special Forum Leaders Retreat later this year to consider the ongoing impacts of the COVID19 pandemic on the region and Vanuatu’s offer to host the annual Leaders meeting in 2023.
The contract of current Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor expires at the end of this year, but Leaders could extend it until they meet face-to-face next year. Alternatively they could vote for one of the four contenders. The jockeying has already begun.