Pacific Islands Forum needs to reaffirm

mpokeefe_thumb Dr Michael O'Keefe
Email: m.okeefe@latrobe.edu.au

 

First published in The Australian on 27th August, 2012.

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Summit in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands that opens today will be a watershed. It will either forge a new path for the region's pre-eminent institution or give ground to the alternative architecture that has grown since Fiji's suspension from participation.

That the stakes are high is evidenced by the unprecedented attendance of the US Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton will be joined by a large Chinese delegation, underscoring the point that the region is geopolitically important.

The summit provides an opportunity for Australia to influence how the region deals with outside powers and on what terms. In recent months Foreign Minister Bob Carr has injected a note of pragmatism into Australia's relations with Fiji and it remains to be seen what impact this will have.

The challenge for the PIF is twofold. First, its place at the centre of regional architecture needs to be cemented in light of the drift towards alternative forms of regional and subregional co-operation. Second, it needs an organisational renovation to face the challenges of globalisation and development.

Australia and other donors have long identified the PIF as the key institution for implementing development policies in the Pacific. This is the orthodox function of the PIF and one Australia and New Zealand have largely bankrolled for more than 40 years. More recently, the PIF has taken on a diplomatic role. This political role was compounded by the response to the 2006 coup in Fiji as the PIF became the central vehicle for legitimising the Australian-led sanctions regime.

Six years of sanctions have not achieved their stated aims, in so far as Fiji has not returned to democracy. That said, Australia has reaffirmed its leadership to the other members of the PIF and to external powers and organisations such as the US, China, UN and EU. However, come 2014 when elections are held in Fiji then the rationale for sanctions will end.

Fiji will presumably be welcomed back into the PIF and as such Australia and its supporters will be faced with much more challenging diplomacy.

The rise of alternative forms of regionalism is a direct result of Fiji's suspension and poses the largest challenge to Australia. The Melanesian Spearhead Group, Engaging with the Pacific meetings and the Pacific Small Island Developing States grouping at the UN have much in common, not the least that Australia is excluded from membership. They are largely driven by Fiji's "Look north plus" policy.

Fiji has made new friends and opened up new avenues of co-operation and as Australia chooses to re-engage it will be operating in a vastly different Pacific seascape. In this climate the continuing relevance of the PIF will need to be demonstrated rather than simply asserted. Fiji is not likely to accept the status quo and may need to be encouraged to resume its engagement with PIF.

The MSG, etc, lack the institutional capacity of the PIF but are growing fast. As such, organisational renovation of the PIF is also a necessity.

The PIF has greater capacity than other nascent forms of regional co-operation and the potential to remain the clearinghouse for aid. However, its central role is under challenge while its effectiveness is also being questioned. A recent internal review of the PIF Secretariat's operations found much to criticise and sparked a spirited defence from the Secretariat itself. The challenge will be to respond constructively to meet the diverse expectations of its members and the challenge from the MSG, etc.

Renovation must also focus on the role of the metropolitan powers (Australia and New Zealand). Their dominance of the political agenda highlights the importance of getting the balance between the interests of PSIDS and larger powers right.

This dominance is relatively new as it arose in the context of John Howard's Pacific "arc of instability". It is evident in Prime Minister Julia Gillard's focus on using the PIF to renew the Pacific Solution. However, tension in the political agenda is evident in the stalemate over Fiji and is underscored by the growing regional interests of other powers, such as China, Russia and the US.

Australian policymakers have attempted to limit the influence of outside powers in their backyard. However, a failure to closely engage with Pacific interests could also make Australia appear like an outsider to some in the PIF. From this perspective it is no coincidence that subregionalism has grown during recent years.

The metropolitan powers have a central role to play, not least in regard to funding, but also in respect to middle-power leadership in relation to the 21st-century challenges facing the Pacific, such as those posed by climate change or illegal fishing in their exclusive economic zones.

It may be that the Rarotonga summit will be a turning point in the development of Pacific architecture for co-operation. Australia has major strategic interests in the region and it is an opportune time to refocus efforts and to reinforce the enduring nature of Australian support and friendship. Carr's recent leadership towards normalising relations with Fiji is a positive development, but after six years the switch can't just be turned on. It may be that a possibility for enhanced regional co-operation exists within the PIF itself.

Dr Michael O'Keefe is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences.