Nov 22, 2017 Last Updated 9:11 AM, Nov 15, 2017

The Blue Pacific

AFTER the Forum leaders’ retreat in Apia, a final press conference was scheduled for 4pm. But more than three hours later, leaders were still arguing over the wording for the communiqué of the 48th Pacific Islands Forum.

The drafting committee could not reach agreement on climate policy, and sent the communique back to leaders for a final decision. Hours later, when Forum host Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa finally fronted the media, he was concerned that journalists were standing between him and his dinner! He denied it had been a tense retreat: “We smiled and laughed – it was one of the happiest meetings in my lifetime. But you know, climate change issues are very complicated.”

This final delay in the retreat did not match the tenor of the week, with the people and government of Samoa organising a smoothly-run and positive event.

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ONE of the more contentious debates at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum involved a proposal from Tuvalu for a Pacific Islands Climate Change Insurance Facility (PICCIF). There is concern amongst some CROP agencies like the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) that Tuvalu’s new initiative will duplicate existing programs, such as the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative (PCRAFI).

But Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga told Islands Business that the proposal should not cause controversy. “This is something provided for in the Paris Agreement,” he said. “We simply want to walk the talk of the agreement. It’s difficult because there are other insurance schemes, but mainly under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

That’s okay - these processes can run in parallel and complement each other.” PCRAFI is a joint initiative of the SPC, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. It receives major funding from Japan, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the ACP-EU natural disaster fund.

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Businesspeople disappointed with leaders

Pacific businesspeople who met in Majuro in conjunction with the Pacific Islands Forum wanted political leaders to back initiatives and remove hurdles to creating airline and shipping opportunities to improve north-south service in the region. But even though business leaders were given the opportunity to present a brief statement about their pre-Forum meeting to the leaders, the Forum leaders’ nine-page communiqué makes not a single mention of these business issues and does not acknowledge the presentation made by Marshall Islands Chamber o f Commerce President Brenda Alik Maddison on behalf of the regional business meeting.

Officials with the Marshall Islands Chamber of Commerce, who organized the early September Private Sector Dialogue, expressed their disappointment at lack of recognition to business objectives in the final communiqué because the point of doing these meetings—the fourth in as many years—is to offer input to the annual leaders’ meeting. The theme was “Enhancing Transport Solutions for increased Trade and Mobility—Connecting North and South Pacific.” During the two-day business consultation, businesspeople from the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu said lack of air service makes development of tourism and other business opportunities difficult.

Jerry Kramer, CEO of Pacific International Inc. based in Majuro, said the Marshall Islands government is subsidizing operations of Our Airline service that links Majuro with Brisbane and Fiji via Nauru. “Though it is much needed, it is not financially self-sustaining,” he said. But if Fiji approves an application from Air Marshall Islands to exercise landing rights in Fiji, the service “could be selfsustaining,” Kramer said.

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As flag-waving children of the Marshall Islands turned out to welcome Presidents, Premiers and Prime Ministers to the 44th Pacific Islands Forum, the assembled leaders were scheduled to arrive in a series of traditional canoes.

But inclement weather and choppy waters on the lagoon forced a change of plans, and leaders were driven to the opening ceremony. The Forum itself continues to sail in choppy waters. The Majuro meeting focused on climate policy, frameworks to replace the Millennium Development Goals and relations between Fiji and other Forum member countries. But the low-key gathering revealed a number of unresolved problems, which continue to affect regional cohesion. Firstly, the gap between rhetoric and reality was very clear. Representatives of major powers queued up to meet Forum leaders, pledging support and solidarity, but their policies on climate, trade and fisheries pose major threats to many Pacific communities.

Statements of climate solidarity are not matched by sufficient action to reduce the emissions that threaten regional livelihoods, environment and security. The unresolved question of Fiji’s relationship with the Forum continues to haunt regional politics. The suspension of Fiji from Forum meetings since 2009 has not stopped the Bainimarama regime from driving regional debate on a range of political and development agendas, aided by Suva’s current role as chair of the G77 plus China group within the United Nations.

Regional concern over the military’s role in drafting Fiji’s new constitution and doubt over the credibility of next year’s scheduled elections has not constrained Suva’s initiatives in the region, highlighted by the new Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF). A flare-up of jousting between China and Taiwan caused dramas throughout the meeting, with Beijing’s representatives reluctant to attend sessions in Majuro’s International Conference Centre (the Taiwan-funded complex features a large plaque and Taiwanese flag in the foyer!). Taiwan’s relations with six Pacific countries, including 2014 Forum host Palau, will continue to rankle Beijing, at a time when China’s influence is increasing across the region.

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Reflecting on this year’s successful Pacific Forum Leaders’ Summit in the idyllic island paradise of the Cook Islands, one might ask if we are witnessing a renaissance in this long-overlooked region. The presence of leaders from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Pacific Islands and senior officials from the People’s Republic of China and UN Women suggests that something is afoot.

The announcement of a 10-year, $320 million Pacific Gender Initiative by the Australian government and a unique partnership between China and New Zealand to finance water supply and sanitation improvements in the Cook Islands gave further reason to think that the future may be brighter in what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to as the “half of Asia-Pacific that does not always get the attention it deserves.” Three years after the “Cairns Compact,” is the situation on the ground evolving or are we just spectators at a 21st century version of Kipling’s “Great Game”—one played out over vast oceans rather than barren steppes? As such things go, the answer is slightly more nuanced than the guest list in Rarotonga might suggest.

The Pacific region is defined by its ocean, but it is also isolated by it. The cost of this isolation has been reduced rates of growth over the long-term with non-resource rich Pacific islands nations growing at around 1% per annum over the past decade, far less than population growth. Small land areas and isolation are also major contributors to fragility in the region. Transport, energy and communication costs in the Pacific’s small islands and isolated rural regions are among the highest in the world.

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• Stephen P. Groff is Vice-President for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

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