Jan 25, 2021 Last Updated 3:51 PM, Jan 25, 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  

Undiplomatic diplomats

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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Kiribati gave Taneti Maamau a resounding victory at the island nation’s presidential poll on 22 June, rewarding him with a second and final four-year term.

As the ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) leader, Maamau polled 26,053 votes, about 59 per cent of total vote cast. His rival Banuera Berina of the Boutokaan Kiribati Moa managed 17,866 votes, winning majority votes in only seven out of the 23 constituencies.

Berina who was chairman of the TKP until he crossed the floor to the opposition late last year was no match it appears to the promises of huge cash bonuses Maamau offered voters.

The opposition gamble of putting up as their candidate someone who had been in the same party as Maamau backfired, although there are others who would argue that the opposition didn’t have much of a choice after its leader Titabu Tabane lost his seat in the parliamentary elections in April.

Read more in the latest Islands Business.

Closed behind their borders amid fears of the Covid-19 virus, electors in Kiribati turned out in two rounds to elect members of the twelfth parliament, the Mwaneaba ni Maungatabu, paving the way for a certain battle between old ‘political bedmates’, caretaker President Taneti Maamau of Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) and the middle-path party Kiribati First Party’s (KFP) leader, lawyer Banuera Berina in the presidential race in June. Former Leader of the Opposition Boutokan te Koaua (BTK) party, lawyer Titabu Tabane, lost his seat from Tab South in the second round of elections. The nation awaits BTK’s nomination for a candidate to contest the presidential race. Maamau and Berina are first round winners on their respective islands, proving their strengths at the polls.

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Pacific predictions: 2020

As we enter not only a new year but a new decade, there is much to anticipate in the Pacific islands region.

Elections and domestic politics

A number of countries in the region will have elections during 2020: Kiribati, Niue, Palau and Vanuatu. The lingering discontent in Kiribati surrounding last year's switch in diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China may have an adverse impact on the incumbent government. In Vanuatu, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabismasmas can point to having served a full parliamentary term as Prime Minister as a reason why he should remain in the top job but that may not be enough. The current premier of Niue, Sir Toke Talagi, has been suffering from ill health recently casting doubt on whether he will contest this year. Meanwhile, there have been calls for more young people to stand for parliament in that country.

Elsewhere in the region, some of what happened on the political scene in 2019 will continue to play out. In Marshall Islands, the Niitjela (Parliament) met last week and elected David Kabua as the new President further to last year's elections. In the immediate aftermath of Solomon Islands' switch from Taiwan to China last year there were indications that Prime Minister Sogavare might face a motion of no confidence. Whilst that did not eventuate in 2019, it remains on the cards for this year. In Papua New Guinea, this year will be crunch time for the Marape/Stephens government. The grace period that protects them from a challenge by way of a motion of no confidence comes to an end in late 2020 and there are already whispers of this paving a comeback for Peter O'Neill who was ousted from the PM's seat in the middle of last year.

There will also be elections in New Zealand, which will be closely watched given that country's closeness to the Pacific islands region, and the centrality of the Pacific Reset to the Ardern/Peters government's policy platform. The incumbent, Jacinda Ardern, was named Islands Business' 'Pacific Person of the Year' for 2019.

There are also significant elections taking place at sub-national level. In Vanuatu, the SANMA provincial elections taking place this month will be closely watched to see if they cast any light on what we can expect in the general elections in March. In Bougainville, there will be elections for President and government of the autonomous region. These elections will be heavily influenced by the results of last year's referendum on independence. However, there is currently some debate as to whether constitutional arrangements should be modified to allow the current President, John Momis, to run for another term. If this is what is to happen, the elections may need to be delayed.

Geopolitics

The last couple of years has seen a proliferation of policies, programs and photo opportunities as established and emerging Pacific partners seek to (re)establish their influence in the region. This is expected to continue through 2020, including by way of high- level visits to the region. For example, President Emmanuel Macron will visit French Polynesia in April. This is significant given France's displeasure at the territory having been reinscribed onto the UN's Decolonisation List.

The impacts of Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China will continue to be felt during 2020. We have already seen some developments with the visit of President Maamau of Kiribati to Beijing where he met with President Xi Jinping and signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Whilst the Taiwanese government has expressed confidence of the continuing relationship with Marshall Islands, Taipei will be watching President Kabua's early movements closely and has already announced a high-level visit to Majuro to help keep this relationship on track. Taiwan now has four allies in the region (Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu) and will continue to expend diplomatic and political capital to avoid losing any of them during 2020.

Independence and self-determination

Work will begin on the negotiations between the Bougainville and Papua New Guinea governments further to the result of last year's referendum which saw 97.7% of those who voted opt for independence. This will have to be ratified by the Parliament of PNG, under the terms of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. Positions on the future of Bougainville vary among PNG parliamentarians, including PM Marape's suggestion of 'economic independence'. Moreover, that agreement does not provide a timeline for how long this process should take. There will need to be a lot of work done around managing community expectations and keeping the flow of information moving in order to avoid frustration.

In New Caledonia, the second of a possible three referendums on independence from France will be held on 6 September. In 2018, the result was much closer than many had predicted with 43.6% voting in favour of independence, exceeding the 30% that some had been predicting.

After some considerable delay, the people of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia will hold an independence referendum in March.

The question of self-determination for West Papua and addressing issues of alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesian state will loom large during 2020, particularly during the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Vanuatu. At last year's meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders Vanuatu lobbied successfully for the issue of West Papua to be given more prominence in the final communiqué than had been the case in the preceding couple of years. This includes a strong signal from leaders that they expect the government of Indonesia to facilitate a visit to the region by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner

for Human Rights, in order for her office to report to leaders when they meet this year in Port Vila.

Meanwhile, in a region dominated by relatively young countries, Fiji will mark its 50th anniversary of becoming independent this year and Vanuatu its 40th.

Pacific regionalism

We have already seen a change of leadership at the oldest of the region's peak bodies, the Pacific Community (SPC). Dr Colin Tukuitonga was replaced as Director-General by Dr Stuart Minchin late last year. The meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders to be held in Vanuatu in August will be Dame Meg Taylor's last as Secretary-General. By convention, it is Micronesia's turn to nominate the person to take on this position. The front runner is Gerald Zackios, the current ambassador of Marshall Islands to the United States.

There will be ongoing work to further develop and embed the 'Blue Pacific' as a unifying narrative that speaks to the needs and aspirations of all members. However, this will take place in a context where there are multiple pressures on national governments, in domestic as well as foreign policy spheres. Divergences of approach when it comes to climate policy will continue to be a significant fault line at the meeting of PIF leaders. Vanuatu, the 2020 host, has already made it clear that the primary focus for that meeting will be climate change.

This item was first published on the DevPolicy blog of the Development Policy Centre, Australian National University 

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