Jan 19, 2021 Last Updated 9:22 AM, Jan 18, 2021

Covid-19 has only catalysed the growing geopolitical interest in the Pacific Islands. Donors have been tripping over each other to prepare for an outbreak of the virus. But, at the same time, this has only exacerbated fundamental cleavages in the delivery of aid to the region.

The Pacific has always had a messy web of donor footprints. Australia and New Zealand have been a constant presence. Alongside this, there is a split between the islands that recognise China versus those that recognise Taiwan.

On top of this, colonial relationships and ongoing Compacts of Free Association agreements mean that the support of some big powers looms large in parts of the region, while being entirely absent in others. And more recently, new players such as the European Union have also stepped into the ring.

The fact that the Pacific’s development indicators continue to rank well behind those of Sub-Saharan Africa has helped it avoid the intense politicisation of aid we have seen elsewhere.

But if current trends continue, the Pacific is on track for a collision between its fundamental development needs and the rapidly evolving state of its geopolitical relationships. In just the past few years alone, China has overtaken the United States to become the third-largest donor in the region.

The great risk in all this is that whatever the Pacific needs, it is unlikely to actually receive. Purely donor-driven approaches rarely deliver what a recipient needs, especially when it is geopolitics – not development – driving the agenda.

This new-found interest in the region has also created a myriad of different bilateral aid processes for recipient countries to navigate. As a result, public servants are forced to spend their days writing proposal after proposal, rather than actually getting on with delivering them.

Take Tuvalu, where the support of 58 different donor countries makes up more than half of its gross domestic product, but where there are only eight people responsible for managing this aid.

With the fight against climate change now touching every development project in the Pacific, the greatest setback in the push to harmonise this development aid in recent years has arguably been Australia’s decision to withdraw from the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

The GCF was designed to precisely address this problem by streamlining climate finance. No amount of additional bilateral funding from Australia will make up for this reckless decision.

However, China’s approach is equally problematic – not least its proclivity for bilateral support and large concessional loans, over multilateral channels or even cooperative development projects with other donors. It is hard to underestimate the geopolitical kudos that would probably come Beijing’s way from developing countries if it were to channel some of its own funding through the GCF, for example.

Australia, which remains the largest donor to the region by far, has a particular interest in helping forge a more coordinated approach among the Pacific’s donor community. Analyst Allan Behm’s recent suggestion for Australia to convene a donor conference is a good one.

Australia should realise that its own Pacific “step up” will continue to be hamstrung by its lack of a genuine climate policy, its ability to play this kind of role will remain limited.

Most importantly, such an approach should also be driven by the Pacific itself. The Pacific Islands Forum’s existing “Dialogue Partners” group could provide the basis for this, especially if it can find a way to involve Taiwan.

The 2009 Cairns Compact on Strengthening Development Coordination in the Pacific tried to improve things. And the recent establishment of the “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway” at the height of the Covid-19 crisis could provide a renewed opportunity to get this done.

Covid-19 has confirmed that the new-found geopolitical interest in the Pacific shows no signs of abating. But a better way must be found to coordinate the delivery of aid to the region that comes with this. This crisis is an opportunity to do just that.

Dr Hilda Heine is a former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Thom Woodroofe is senior adviser on multilateral affairs to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. This article is published in a content partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Covid New (Ab) Normal initiative  

From the zenith of Pacific regionalism (the Forum) from the early 1970s, Fiji’s standing in the group and amongst its regional neighbours stooped to unprecedented ignominy in 2009. Fiji was the first member country ever to be suspended from the Forum. It remained in the doldrums until 2014 when its membership was reinstated after the country’s 2014 general elections. After tentative steps to regain its rightful status, Fiji appears to be firmly on the way to recapturing its lost good name. Its task is a foregone conclusion. It has to be the mainspring of transformative changes under the proposed 2050 Strategy. Fiji’s first step is to ensure that the strategy is expertly and adequately framed to effectively deliver on all the changes that will transform the economies of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to sustainability, secure inter-dependencies and heightened levels of self-sufficiency.

Fiji’s good name in the Forum had a pre-Forum lead-up. In 1965, independent Western Samoa was a member of the then South Pacific Commission (SPC). Fiji and other non-independent PICs attended SPC meetings only on invitation. But they were unhappy about their treatment by the metropolitan countries. At the meeting in Lae that year, Fiji’s Ratu Kamisese Mara masterminded what was to be later referred to as the Lae Rebellion.

Ratu Mara articulated the PICs’ concern: “The powers seemed incapable of realising that the winds of change had at last reached the South Pacific and that we peoples of the territories were no longer going to tolerate the domination of the Commission by the metropolitan powers. We were sick of having little to say and no authority. Regardless of what we said or did the final decision was always in the hands of the metropolitan powers.”

The Lae Rebellion resulted in the breakaway of five PICs—the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Tonga and Western Samoa—with the idea to establish their own forum between 1970 - 1971. Ratu Mara, Fiji’s first Prime Minster, was the principal interlocutor for the group and he negotiated the terms of the inclusion in the group of New Zealand first and Australia later. The South Pacific Forum was thus formalised in Wellington in 1971. Ratu Mara later justified the inclusion of the two developed countries: “We were happy to be joined by Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) in the Forum…..Indeed, we wanted them for a special reason for part of the ambitious plan of the Forum..…was no less than to alter the whole balance of the terms of trade.”

Fiji’s good record persisted over the years when the Forum needed to negotiate and resolve intractable global issues like The Law of the Sea and nuclear testing. Fast forward to 2000, under the Biketawa Declaration, specifically under RAMSI, where Fiji’s contribution of security personnel, along with those from Australia, New Zealand and other PICs assisted Solomon Islands in its hour of need, is to be commended.

But the period starting in December 2006 marked Fiji’s decline in favour in terms of Pacific regionalism. The same Biketawa Declaration was invoked to suspend Fiji in 2009 following the coup of 2006 and failure to conduct general elections as first indicated.  Fiji’s suspension was lifted in October 2014 after the general elections. But the controversies surrounding Fiji persisted. This was due to Prime Minister Bainimarama’s intention to find ways to exclude Australia and New Zealand from the Forum’s membership.

This intention, however, waned somewhat with the execution of the provisions of Australia’s ‘Step-Up’ and New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Re-set’ that strengthened regional aid packages for the PICs. PM Bainimarama’s mood was upbeat on the way to the Tuvalu Forum Leaders’ meeting last year. When asked about his relationship with Australia and New Zealand, he said that the Forum was reaching a new stage in its development with both. His mood, however, reverted to being critical of the two developed country members after the divisive shenanigans of Funafuti instigated by Australia as perceived by the PICs Leaders.

However, all that seems to be water under the bridge. PM Bainimarama opened Fiji’s national consultation on the 2050 Strategy last August. He was upbeat. He was inspirational. He spoke of Forum Leaders as the captains - the ones who must make the day-to-day decisions that lead us to our destination. Our destination “is to achieve the future we know is right and know is possible.”

The future of course, and the path to get there, will be encapsulated in the 2050 Strategy. In Fiji’s eyes, “the Strategy will be at the heart of our ambition.” Referring to Australia’s effort to ensure equitable access to a vaccine to the coronavirus in the Pacific, PM Bainimarama said: “If we harness that spirit of regional collective action, we have good reason to hold faith in our progress for the next 30 years.”

As host to next year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting, Fiji now plays a critical role in determining and advancing Pacific regionalism to the unprecedented heights to which we all aspire. At the officials’ level, Fiji provides managerial and critical inputs in the formulation of the 2050 Strategy. At the Leaders’ level, Fiji starts a three-year stint as a member of the Troika. During one third of that period, Fiji will assume the chair.

The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, to guide Fiji forward, is likely to be innovative and far-reaching, judging from the evocative elements of the Tuvalu Communique, and from the assessment and outcomes of planning to date. The Communique speaks of course of the new 2050 vision, the particularisation rendered to the ‘vision of PICs only that recognized the Blue Pacific Continent’, the link to the SAMOA Pathway and the Boe Declaration.

In the context of the experiences, fortunes and the unfolding of events of Pacific regionalism since 1971, there are likely to be critical lessons that could be incorporated into the strategy. A number of lessons stand out prominently and they, in my book, will need to be formulated with hindsight to enable curative measures to be transformative. But transformative in a positive and realistic sense. PICs need to make a quantum leap to make a difference. Pacific regionalism needs to be more meaningful through the effective delivery of the expectations of its members, especially those of the PICs.

For 49 years, PICs have remained vulnerable. Their inter-dependencies remain weak. Their economies’ dependence on aid still remains as one of the highest in the world, on a per capita basis. This needs to be turned around.

On top of that, their trade is weak. Industrialisation in regional hubs or in clusters remains a dream. Transformative ideas like value adding products for specific high-value niche markets have yet to take the world markets by storm.  In short, regional economic integration, after 49 years, is still rudimentary. Essentially, re-doing the basics of regionalism properly is a lesson that can be drawn from our 49 years of collective efforts.

Climate change is an added threat. Post-COVID-19 measures will complicate matters and will require greater resilience, commitment and grit.

The above tasks await Fiji. Fiji has the wherewithal to excel. Regional solidarity is the key.

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

White tip shark in danger

By NETANI RIKA in Port Moresby

THE Pacific must act now to stop Oceanic White Tip Shark from extinction.

With White Tip stocks standing at five per cent of the original stock, the Worldwide Fund for Nature has called for an immediate recovery plan for the species.

John Tanzer of WWF International said urgent action was required to start rebuilding the oceanic whitetip population and to ensure that no other open ocean shark or ray ended up near extinction.

“It is unbelievable that a species that could be counted in the millions in the past is now facing extinction in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, an area covering almost per cent of the Earth’s surface,” Tanzer said.

“The fact that overfishing for the oceanic whitetip is ongoing, in spite of the official catch and retention ban (a prohibition to intentionally catch and, if accidentally caught, to keep on board) that has been in place since 2011, points to the Western and Central Pacific Fishing Commission’s inability to manage fishing impacts on this species.’’

The WWF statement preceded the 16th WCPFC Regular Session in Port Moresby.

In the late 1990s, Oceanic Whitetip Sharks were the most common shark in the tropical oceans.

Scientists have described the situation for the species as catastrophic, especially in the Western and Central Pacific.

“Whether targeted for their highly prized fins for the international shark fin trade or caught accidentally (as “bycatch”) when fishing for tuna in the high seas, their population has plummeted drastically due to overfishing,” a WWF report said. 

“(The) WWF urges members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to prevent extinction of the oceanic whitetip shark by supporting the development of a recovery plan.”

The WWF wants WCPFC member states to adopt science-based solutions to prevent the potential extinction of the Oceanic Whitetip Shark and improve the plight of other sharks and rays harvested in the Pacific

During the Port Moresby talks, leaders will be asked to finalise and adopt a comprehensive conservation and management plan and catch quotas for all sharks and rays.

“With important decisions made by WCPFC only once a year and their consent-based decision-making process, it is of utmost importance that all member states take action and agree to adopt the recommended, science-based measures,’’ said D Andy Cornish, the WWF’s of shark and ray conservation programme.  

“Only this way WCPFC will be able to conserve sharks – including the oceanic whitetip – and move fisheries towards a sustainable future.”

Sharks and rays, including the Oceanic Whitetip Shark, continue to make up a large percentage of annual bycatch – mostly by long-line fishing fleets - in the Western and Central Pacific.

Conservationists believe overfishing is the major threat to the 1200 species of sharks and rays known to science, with 25 per cent threatened with extinction back in 2014


Harnessing traditional knowledge of the oceans in a way that isn’t exploitative or tokenistic is emerging as a strong theme at a regional ocean meeting currently underway in Noumea.

Scientists, policy makers and others with an interest in oceans management are meeting at the Pacific Community to plan for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030.

The Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific, Frances Koya, said the very premise of the UN decade and all Sustainable Development Goal frameworks need to be questioned first.

“When we unpackage the conversation about the Blue Pacific identity, the blue economy and the blue continent, it is very much an economic agenda,” she said.

“We will need to invest in research that examines indigenous understandings of sustainability, sustainable livelihoods, custodianship, stewardship and of course, resilience. Not just ecological resilience but a holistic, multidisciplinary understanding of what resilience means to us.”

Koya says we need to be vigilant about what another speaker described as ‘parachute researchers’.

“How can we ensure that we do not perpetuate extractive research and development practice, of taking from indigenous communities and knowledge systems to strengthen western models of good practice, that is culture and indigenous knowledge and participation solely for an outside agenda? We will need to be mindful for the need for very difficult conversations about meaningful participation, intellectual property rights and copyright in the context of collective cultural knowledge, shared and mutual gains and benefits, protective safeguarding mechanisms and legislature.”

Fiji’s Patrina Dumaru, who is a geography lecturer at USP reinforced this message, saying in her own research she very quickly learnt ,“you can’t really create behavioural change without appealing to the belief systems and the customary practices and values of the communities which you work with.

“I have worked with some great scientists who have appreciated this, but who also had challenges in interacting in that kind of environment.”

She appealed to scientists to think about how they can make their work relevant at the community level.

“ It is great to be innovative in your labs in the universities that you work in, but our relevance will be what kind of change is going to happen on the ground.”

A Pacific Youth Council representative at the meeting, Tyler Rae Chung, said learning traditional navigation techniques and ways of being with the ocean, brought me back to my grassroots to understand that it is not just about extracting information from the ocean, but it’s also about understanding that there was indigenous knowledge before us.”

She appealed to participants to think about how they can work with young people during the ocean decade through a mentoring-monitoring program.

“It would be great to see what we can offer the next generation of leaders in terms of education assistance and building their capacity from grassroots levels to indigenous knowledge because it all comes back to the people as well as scientific knowledge.”

The Noumea meeting is the first of a series of regional meetings around the world to plan a scientific research agenda for the Ocean Decade. It continues today.

You are able to enjoy independent news coverage from the Ocean Decade conference through SPC’s Australian funded Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific (COSPPac).

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