Monday 20 May 2019 | 16:00 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 May 2019 | 16:00 | SYDNEY

Diplomacy: Melanesian style


Jenny Hayward-Jones


29 May 2008 14:04

The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders’ summit kicks off today in Port Vila, Vanuatu where the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu will meet for two days. New Caledonia’s pro-independence FLNKS leaders also attend MSG meetings but represent their party rather than New Caledonia. On the agenda this year is an overview of political and security developments in the MSG region, a return to democracy in Fiji, the possible establishment of an MSG sub regional security force and the expansion of trade between Melanesian countries.

MSG leaders last year signed a constitution. Its founding principle was ‘to promote cooperation among independent Melanesian nations and to assist other Melanesian states that are not yet free.’ This year, if the chair (Vanuatu), has its way, the summit will also consider whether to grant West Papuans of Indonesia observer status. PNG foreign minister Sam Abal’s opposition to West Papua’s observer status is likely to stymie Vanuatu’s lobbying yet again.

However, the sustained division between PNG and Vanuatu on this issue has not had much effect on MSG dynamics to date. It was to be expected that Vanuatu would use its position as chair to promote its support for West Papua but you have to wonder why it keeps trying. The consensus style of decision-making in the MSG surely means that PNG’s size and influence will continue to dominate the agenda.

This year, leaders will also open the new MSG secretariat building (funded by Chinese aid) in Port Vila and appoint a director general to head the work of the secretariat. MSG officials have claimed that the organisation represents a more effective way of managing affairs in Melanesia than the Pacific Islands Forum. It is their intention that regional policies be formulated by the MSG and then presented to regional and international bodies.

The issue on the MSG’s agenda most likely to capture wider regional attention is the future of Fiji. A meeting of MSG foreign ministers earlier this week recommended that Fiji alert member countries if it believed it was unable to hold elections by March 2009. Vanuatu foreign minister George Wells said the MSG would continue to support Fiji through the challenging time ahead and encouraged Fiji to comply with the election timetable. MSG leaders will hear from Commodore Bainimarama himself today but it is what is said in private discussions rather than the communiqué that is likely to have the most impact.

The welcome Vanuatu prime minister Ham Lini gave to Fiji interim prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama on arrival in Port Vila and the pig clubbing and kava drinking ceremonies of the MSG meeting contrasts with the more formal meeting Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers had in Auckland on 26 March with Fiji officials. But will the MSG’s approach to its troubled member be more effective than the Pacific Islands Forum’s methods. The responsiveness of the Fiji interim government to MSG pressure will be a key test of the group’s relevance to the region.