Pacific (sub)regionalism – where to next?
6 Dec 2012|

Richard Herr’s recent item on intra-regional relationships in the Pacific is a timely contribution to this discussion.

The past, present and future of regionalism and sub-regionalism in this part of the world are topics of endless fascination but they have significant political (including geopolitical) and economic implications as well. It’s an environment that’s both fluid and fast changing at numerous levels. At the beginning of the year, I predicted this would be an issue of significance during 2012 and so it has proved. This isn’t particularly surprising and, for what it’s worth, I predict it is going to be a ‘hot topic’ next year as well.

Here I’d like to briefly pick up on a couple of points Richard made in his piece. I think there is more to add about the Fiji situation, about sub-regionalism more generally and about the future role of the Pacific Islands Forum.

First, I think it’s worth mentioning that, while the re-entry of Fiji into the PACP ‘family’ was indeed significant, it was one in a series of steps that have been ongoing for a considerable period—in fact, since Fiji was suspended from the Forum. It’s necessary to remember that while Fiji might be coming in from the cold, it remains suspended from both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth. However, what’s particularly fascinating here is the way Fiji has manoeuvred and positioned itself in recent years, regionally and internationally. If and when Fiji’s suspension from the Forum is lifted, it’s plausible that its significance will be more symbolic than meaningful, either politically or economically. But if Fiji does make a reappearance at the Forum, it will be from a position of political strength, having not only cemented but enhanced relationships within the region and developed new ones in a whole range of places. In addition, Fiji’s accession to the chair of the G77 grouping earlier this year provides one more plank in a carefully constructed raft of geopolitical and diplomatic strength, which will not be conceded lightly, if at all.

This leads us to the issue of sub-regionalism. The general landscape of the differing sub-regional groupings is well summarised here. In terms of geographical and political significance for Australia, the key sub-regional group to watch now is the Melanesian Spearhead Group (PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and the FLNKS of New Caledonia). Some might argue that this is the most dynamic and active of the three sub-regional groupings (the other two are the Polynesian Leaders’ Group and the Micronesia Chief Executives’ Summit). If so, it’s not really surprising, as it’s the longest established (it will celebrate its 25th birthday in 2013). And, as Richard Herr notes, it’s the most populous and economically active, with particular focus on the resources boom in PNG and, to a lesser extent, Solomon Islands. It’s also evident that the Melanesian countries are increasingly exercising their political clout in the wider region, as seen in this most recent move to establish the PACP secretariat in Port Moresby. With a director general supplied by PNG and a deputy director general provided by Solomon Islands, there’s a very definite Melanesian stamp on this initiative.

From an Australian perspective, an increased amount of political and diplomatic assertiveness on the part of its nearest neighbours is something to be welcomed. However, concerns continue to be expressed that Canberra’s approach in this space is one that requires adjustments in some key areas. This needs to become more of a priority than it currently appears to be, not least because there are issues forthcoming that have the potential to cause ripples in the Coral Sea. An example that springs to mind, which has already been considered here and here, is that of decolonisation in the region, especially regarding New Caledonia and West Papua.

And finally, what of the Pacific Islands Forum? Is Richard Herr accurate in describing it as verging on a ‘crisis of legitimacy’? It isn’t surprising to see that the members’ expectations of the Forum have changed and developed in the forty years since it was created—it would be a matter of concern if they hadn’t. There have certainly been mutterings around the region over a number of years about the relevance of the Forum and the undue influence that Australia and New Zealand are perceived to have had in that space—although as some have noted, it’s Australia and New Zealand who pay the bills. I’d suggest that the Leaders’ meeting in Rarotonga this year was illustrative of the fact that the annual event is useful as just that—a high-end gathering that acts as something of a magnet for big names such as Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet. But in terms of where the leaders in our region are focusing their energies in order to get things done, it’s self evident that it is in other groupings and forums that the key political and economic decisions are being made, including forging, developing and enhancing inter, intra and extra regional relationships.

Tess Newton Cain specialises in developing knowledge connections in the South Pacific region. She is a research associate of the Development Policy Centre and has also worked with the Pacific Institute of Public Policy.