Challenging times for regionalism in Rarotonga

Pacific Islands Forum 2023: Every September, the opening of the United Nations General Assembly provides an opportunity for presidents, prime ministers and heads of states to highlight their views on global challenges. It’s an important venue for Pacific leaders to speak before a global audience.

However this year, leaders from key nations were a no-show in New York. Xi Xinping didn’t attend the UNGA session, nor Rishi Sunak or Emmanuel Macron. Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin stayed away (though Putin at least had an excuse, fearing he’d be arrested as a war criminal because of Russian aggression in Ukraine). Closer to home, key Forum leaders sent a representative rather than turn up themselves: Australia’s Anthony Albanese, PNG’s James Marape and then New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

Of course,  leaders have busy schedules and many competing demands. But the absence of so many major leaders symbolises the challenges facing the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. International cooperation is under stress, as war rages in Europe and the Middle East. Many small developing countries are still struggling with the debt and development crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency. There’s concern that pledges of support from key partners will not translate to action on the ground, as global resources are diverted towards strategic crises and arms manufacture.

For Pacific leaders, the international arena is getting very complex, very fast. As the 18 member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum gather this week for their 52nd summit in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, they will once again seek to forge a consensus around a lengthy and complex agenda. The discussions, however, include a number of contentious issues that have long divided regional policymakers.

At their 2017 summit in Apia, Forum leaders adopted the concept of the “Blue Pacific” as a way to frame their regional agenda around climate change, oceans, human development and environmental security. At last year’s meeting in Suva, they formally adopted the ‘2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent.’ This year in Rarotonga, they will discuss a draft implementation plan, to put meat on the bones of the strategic framework, and set priorities for regional co-operation.

A 200-strong entertainment group will open the Rarotonga summit at the Avarua Tereora Stadium, and then it’s down to work. As host, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown wants to focus on “Pacific Partnerships for Prosperity”, as well as well as climate change and nuclear contamination. The meeting will also look at the widening agenda of security challenges facing the region, from geopolitical competition to AUKUS, Japan’s Fukushima ocean dumping program, and the need to strengthen the Treaty of Rarotonga for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ).

Responding to the plague of gender-based violence across the region, in the home, workplace, community and online, women’s groups and regional agencies have been working to revitalise support programs and improve training and funding. The Rarotonga summit will re-visit the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, first adopted in 2012.

The program includes a series of sub-regional meetings, and sessions for the Pacific ACP group and Smaller Island States (SIS). On Wednesday afternoon, leaders will travel to Aitutaki – 264 kilometres from the capital Avarua – to hold their annual retreat on Thursday. Returning to the capital, Friday will involve a series of thematic workshops around the pillars of the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy.

Overcoming disunity

The Forum has passed through a few years of uncertainty and disunity. In 2021, the five members of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit (MPS) stepped away from the regional organisation, demanding recognition of their interests, as well as concessions before they returned to the fold. This year, after extensive dialogue, everyone is back in the tent (though a number of leaders will not attend this week’s meeting, coping with recent elections or post-cyclone damage).

At a Special leaders retreat in Fiji last February, leaders welcomed “the return of the Republic of Kiribati to the Pacific Islands Forum and reaffirmed their collective commitment to the Blue Pacific Continent, which is their collective home, ocean, lands and common heritage.” In September, the Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting stressed that “the collective strength of the Forum is drawn from its unity, Forum centrality and the depth of its solidarity as framed and articulated by the 2050 Strategy.”

Despite this, there are a number of controversial issues that continue to challenge regional unity. Deep sea mining, AUKUS and nuclear submarines, West Papua, interference by geopolitical partners – these issues and more continue to undercut regional collaboration. This week, civil society and church organisations are mobilising in Rarotonga, seeking stronger action from Pacific governments on climate justice, decolonisation and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, hoping they won’t kick too many problems down the road for another day.

On climate policy, the traditional practice is to fight like cats and dogs over every word in the Forum communiqué, then see Australia go its own way at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) in subsequent weeks. Despite the uneasy climate consensus at Forum summits, Australian diplomats often end up on the other side of the fence from AOSIS delegates at COPs, as Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries and industrialised nations battle over the speed of the climate transition and financing for adaptation and Loss and Damage (see separate story on Forum climate debates).

Leadership changes

Compared to the long tenure of leaders like Sir Michael Somare, Toke Talagi or Tuilaepa on the regional stage, there’s now a churn of political leadership in the Forum. The Rarotonga summit will be a first for some new faces after recent elections and no confidence motions, such as French Polynesia’s Moetai Brotherson and Nauru’s David Adeang. With the recent formation of a government in New Zealand, incoming Prime Minister David Luxon will stay home, sending outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni as his representative.

The recent election loss for Sepuloni and NZ Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is part of a notable retreat of women from top leadership positions across the region. The days when three women lead the Forum Secretariat – Meg Taylor, Cristelle Pratt and Andie Fong Toy – are long gone. Role models like Dr. Hilda Heine and Jacinda Ardern have lost office, while key officials like Anna Naupa of the Pacific Fusion Centre and Forum Fisheries Agency Director-General Manu Tupou-Roosen are ending their terms of office.

As part of the Suva Agreement with the Micronesian states, outgoing Forum Deputy Secretary General Filimon Manoni will now lead the Office of the Pacific Oceans Commissioner (OPOC). Manoni has been replaced as Deputy Secretary General by Fijian foreign affairs official Esala Nayasi, who has been a mainstay of the Forum Officials Committee and Pacific regionalism for many years. Under the Suva Agreement, the OPOC – previously run from the Forum Secretariat – will be hived off and relocated from Suva to Palau. Last February’s Special leaders meeting also agreed to create a new Forum subregional office in Kiribati.

Another key decision was that Forum Secretary General Henry Puna would complete his first three-year term in 2024, but would then be replaced by the MPS nominee, Baron Divavesi Waqa, who served as Nauru President in 2013-19. It’s a bold – and for many – controversial choice, and likely to be discussed at this week’s meeting (albeit behind closed doors).

Waqa is an old hand in regional politics and played a significant role in AOSIS. On his watch as Forum chair in 2018, Forum leaders adopted the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, a crucial statement that promotes a wider focus on human and environmental security (the Declaration famously stresses that climate change is “the greatest single threat to the livelihood, wellbeing and security of Pacific peoples”).

However, there are also questions about Waqa’s record as President of Nauru. In office, he was a fierce partisan of Taiwan and sharply critical of the People’s Republic of China (famously, a Chinese diplomat stormed from the room when Waqa was chairing the Forum Partners Dialogue at the Nauru Forum in 2018). Only four of eighteen Forum member countries have diplomatic relations with Taipei rather than Beijing. Those with closer ties to the PRC may want the Secretary General to respect a policy of “friends to all, enemies to none”, at a time of sharpening US-China strategic competition.

The same concern is evident around deep sea mining (DSM), likely to be debated at this week’s summit. As with incoming Forum Chair Mark Brown, Waqa has actively promoted the exploitation of seabed minerals in his nation’s EEZ, even as many Forum members call for a moratorium on mining, while civil society groups demand a complete ban.

As Nauru President, Waqa also had a fractious relationship with many international media organisations – especially those that criticised Nauru for hosting Australia’s offshore detention centres, raised allegations of corrupt behaviour or questioned the state of relations between the executive and Nauru’s judiciary.

At the 2018 Forum in Yaren, journalists from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Guardian newspaper were refused media accreditation and NZ journalist Barbara Dreaver was briefly detained by Nauru police, after she was caught talking to refugees. At a press conference that night, there were terse words from the Forum host, who criticised journalists (including this correspondent) for presenting the welfare of refugees on Manus and Nauru as a regional concern, rather than a domestic matter for Nauru.

Under successive Secretary Generals Dame Meg Taylor and Henry Puna, the Forum Secretariat has actively engaged with the media and civil society, so many will be monitoring the culture of transparency in the new Forum leadership.

Interesting times ahead, as the Forum navigates the shoals and reefs of regional geopolitics!