Globalism is being threatened in the post-Covid-19 global order. However, there is still ample common sense around to counter such a threat. Those engaged are still at an early stage in their coordinated countermove. They are likely to attract reinforcements to ensure some semblance of the familiar multilateralism in the interest of global orderliness and of humanity in general. During this period of enforced unsettledness, regionalism, e.g. Pacific regionalism (Pacific Islands Forum – PIF) will need to be strong, active and react as effectively as is possible, to avoid any major setback in members’ economic, social and geo-political status. This is critical given that the majority of PIF members are vulnerable, small island developing states - globally characterised as developing or least developed countries.
The US under President Trump, with its nationalistic and autarkic ‘Make America Great Again’ is leading the charge for the disintegration of globalism. Its newest trade armament, brought about by COVID-19, straddled new heights of aggressive protectionism. So much so that a new trade lexicon has been coined to mark its undignified entrance. ‘Sicken Thy Neighbour’ relates to US’s export restriction (and even diversion) of medical products to deserving importing countries for, inter alia, protectionist reasons. The new lexicon joins its equally nefarious ‘Beggar Thy Neighbour’ to take autarky and protectionism to a new level.
The counter-movers to recapture lost grounds from globalism have globalisation and multilateralism at heart. Despite the downsides of globalisation, they believe that a multilateral approach to solving humanity’s challenges, including existential threats like climate change, can only be effectively addressed at the global level. A number of great world thinkers share the same view. Historian Yuval Noah Harari, for example, believes that the three challenges he identified for the world, viz: ecological collapse, technological disruption and nuclear war, can only be resolved at the global level.
For PIF members, especially the 16 Pacific Island Countries, Pacific regionalism is a critical pathway and an effective collective tool linking them additionally to the multilateral framework. Strong, active and effective regionalism will complement national initiatives to benefit through regional outputs and outcomes. Further, through Pacific regionalism, PIF members can aspire to increasing levels of integration amongst them and PICs especially can effectively exercise their collective innate agency on global issues that matter to them. At the multilateral level, they would benefit from, inter alia, the articulation of reasoned, effective and efficient advocacy of critical global issues.
For Pacific regionalism, therefore, it is now a critical time for self-analysis. PIF needs to step up its game in order to raise its levels of aspiration. The post-COVID-19 new normal demands this. Apart from the propitiousness of timing, PIF also needs to critically think about its own strategy given the disunity that reigns within. There is disunity in PIF’s stance on climate change. There may also be disunity as regards PIF’s stance on the disintegration of globalism. Australia, for instance, is known for having attacked the UN last year, speaking against ‘negative globalism’ and ‘unaccountable international bureaucracies.’ PIF needs the global pathway. It should be its core geostrategy.
At the practical level, PIF needs to double and treble its efforts at integration and especially economic integration. I have written at length about the delayed economic integration amongst the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) as regards Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA). The same scenario can definitely be said about integration between the PICs, on one hand, and Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), on the other hand, under the PACER Plus trade agreement. This trade agreement is yet to be implemented. However, the demand on its deliverables for economic integration has intensified under current circumstances to warrant immediacy of action. And I believe that the opportunity desperately beckons.
When the collective negotiations on PACER Plus were declared concluded to facilitate signing, Fiji opted to continue negotiating. There was no dissension on this matter. Fiji was upfront as regards its intention to improve some aspects of the ‘agreed texts’. The bilateral negotiations thus ensued and have yet to be declared closed.
This article endorses the need for greater economic integration within PIF to raise its profile in addressing the disintegration of globalism. Therefore, PIF needs to sanction the continued negotiations on PACER Plus with the view of attributing the trade agreement with all the concessions, special and differential treatments, waivers and derogation possible to render maximum benefits especially to the PICs. This can all be done with the requisite dosage of political will, by both Australia and New Zealand, the two developed country members of PIF.
The opportunity should also be taken to effectively engage with Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the extended negotiations. PNG had opted out of the earlier negotiations. In the context of Pacific regionalism, there is just no logic to having a trade agreement with ANZ without the biggest economy of all the PICs involved. From statements released from Port Moresby, it can be appreciated that the issues of concern to PNG are similar to those that Fiji had highlighted.
Additionally, Vanuatu’s concern about lost tax revenue resulting from hasty and hefty tariff reduction, can also be addressed with more concessionary tariff reduction scheduling. This may require, firstly, reviewing the contents of Vanuatu’s allowable schedule of protected goods and services. Secondly, it may also need increased tolerance level as regards the definition of ‘substantial part of the trade’ – to be subjected to trade liberalisation under the agreement.
The renewed negotiations can therefore focus on these specific issues with targeted outputs. It has to be made clear at the start that new improved agreed texts should be merged onto previous texts to benefit all PICs, parties to the negotiations, including those who earlier signed the then existing agreement.
The various issues raised by Fiji, if addressed fairly and objectively, can result in greater economic integration amongst PIF members and offer more solid bases of economic growth and development. The infant industry clause, for instance, can be improved through strategic choices of industry to be protected and with appropriate liberalisation timelines.
The mandatory ‘most favoured nation’ (MFN) clause can also be subjected to concession and derogation. As it is, the MFN clause requires that any concession obtained by a party to an agreement would necessarily apply to the other party. However, this can be avoided through a waiver. The waiver, for instance, could be formulated to say that the MFN clause (on the PICs’ side) will only apply to concessions obtained from developed countries or a group of developed countries. It will not apply to concessions obtained from developing or least developed countries or a group of these countries.
Fiji was also not happy with the provision on Labour Mobility. As it is, Fiji believes that it is really nothing to write home about. Merely providing a forum for annual talkfests is hardly the stuff for considered and enhanced regional economic integration.
Another concern raised is the need to enjoy the security of the market access provided for by the agreement. Essentially, this is an oblique reference to unsupervised and unjustified non-tariff barriers (NTBs) imposed by the importing markets, ANZ in this case. On the plus side, it has to be said that both ANZ are ably addressing this matter through provisions of relevant systematic processes and training of PIC exporters with joint ANZ-funding provided for under the PACER Plus for Aid for Trade. Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access (PHAMA), an initiative by ANZ, is leading the charge on this matter.
In the first place, Fiji’s concerns were about the lack of balance and the loss of policy space for PICs in the texts of the PACER Plus agreement at that time. If improvements, as discussed above, are finally incorporated into the legal texts, they would certainly render the agreement a more consolidated basis for determined regional economic integration. Pacific regionalism would then grow from strength to strength. It, moreover, would be better placed to address its inherent disunities and contradictions. The flow-on effects from there would have positive implications on multilateralism and on PIF’s/PICs’ agency in the global scheme of things.
The author is a former Fijian ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.