Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:16 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:16 | SYDNEY

Is the MSG a threat to Pacific unity?


Jenny Hayward-Jones


20 July 2009 09:26

The decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s (MSG) leaders on 10 July to lend their support to Fiji’s interim Government, and the backpedalling by leaders since that decision, reveals some interesting insights into how diplomacy works — or does not work — in the Pacific.

The meeting was held at a useful juncture for Bainimarama – a week after he delivered his Strategic Framework for Change speech and three weeks before the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders’ Summit in Cairns, from which he has been excluded. He seized the opportunity to secure endorsement for his agenda from a group of the region’s most influential countries. 

The support offered to Bainimarama by the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu was likely driven by a sense of obligation to Melanesian brotherhood, a desire to assert a Melanesian approach that differed from that of Australia, New Zealand and the Polynesian members of the Forum, and some pandering to domestic constituencies concerned about Fiji’s suspension from the Forum.

If the MSG is to prove it is an effective sub-regional grouping, its leaders should present a clear and united front to the region and demonstrate that Melanesian-style diplomacy offers a better way of dealing with Fiji. The situation in Fiji is such that the region is crying out for creative solutions. Supporting Bainimarama's Strategic Framework for Change, Fiji’s continuing engagement in the PIF and the right to participate in regional trade agreements all telegraphed a strong message to the region about Melanesian solidarity. 

But in the week since that message was delivered, Prime Minister Somare has said dialogue with Fiji was 'not an issue for the MSG', confirming that the MSG would ultimately abide by the majority decision on Fiji’s status in the PIF in Cairns. And Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei has indicated the MSG didn’t necessarily support Bainimarama’s roadmap. 

The softening of the MSG’s tone may have been a response to reminders from other PIF members (almost certainly delivered early last week) about the importance of Forum unity. But it does beg questions about the future role and integrity of the MSG. The MSG should be a dominant sub-regional group and should be leading discussion within the Forum on handling Fiji. The members of the MSG (excluding New Caledonia) have a combined population of 8.2 million, GDP of US$12.7 billion and land area of 521,672 sq kms. By contrast, their Polynesian and Micronesian fellow members of the Forum have a combined population of 608,000, GDP of US$1.7 billion and land area of 6,363 sq kms. 

The delivery of such contradictory public messages on Fiji within the space of one week, however, is hardly a demonstration of a group capable of challenging the status quo in the region or indeed of an approach that will assist Fiji in 'building commitment and capacity for genuine dialogue consistent with Melanesian values and traditional practices.'

Photo by flickr user Jo Levine, used under a Creative Commons license.