Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:39 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:39 | SYDNEY

Pacific Forum: Flirting with irrelevance

17 August 2010 08:54

As I said at the end of my first post in this two-part series, a hot topic of discussion in the margins of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting was the big question of whether the Forum had lost its relevance as the premier high-level meeting for the region. A lot of people asked what could realistically be achieved, given that three out of sixteen Forum country leaders did not attend, and given the increasing prevalence of sub-regional deal-making.

PNG, Solomon Islands and Australia did not send their leaders. The latter two are easily explained away, both dealing with domestic elections. But it is not clear why PNG's Prime Minister, Michael Somare, did not attend. His spokesman told AAP: 'It has nothing to do with politics. He needs to be in PNG.' Many speculated that it has everything to do with politics and Mr Somare is facing immense challenges from within his own National Alliance ranks.

Fiji's military ruler, Commodore Frank Bainimarama's recent 'Engaging Fiji' meeting, attended by countries including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, PNG, Tuvalu and Kiribati also calls into question the relevance of the Forum, and the real value of a communiqué signed by Pacific leaders.

Only weeks before the Forum Leaders meeting in Vila, Commodore Bainimarama convinced several Pacific Island leaders to sign the 'Natadola communiqué', which included such statements as: 'Fiji's Strategic Framework for Change (SFC) is a credible home-grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation and to hold true democratic elections'. The document also '(r)ecognised the need for Fiji's continuous engagement with the region and its full participation in regional development, initiatives and aspirations'. Analysis of Bainimarama's communiqué can be found here.

Only a few weeks later, the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group chairman, Tonga Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, said that, as the situation in Fiji had not changed, the Forum leaders had decided to maintain Fiji’s suspension. He went onto state that Forum will be fully committed to engage in dialogue with Fiji and will encourage and support Fiji's early return to parliamentary democracy.

The Leaders meeting attracted a large and colourful array of development partners and observers. China sent a large delegation and was not backward on the gift-giving front. China provided a large number of fancy black sedans and buses to transport delegates around Port Vila, plus truck-loads of fireworks. The Chinese were unimpressed with the Forum communiqué, which made a very minor reference to Taiwan, and in a heavy-handed way sought to have the reference removed.

Indonesia sent fifteen delegates, and publicly announced it would provide the Vanuatu police force with uniforms and training. Coincidentally, Vanuatu is now the Chair of the Forum and Chair of the Melanesian Spearhead group and supportive of West Papuan independence. Despite rumblings ahead of the meeting that Vanuatu would raise the issue of West Papua, it was not mentioned.

Surprisingly, a sizable US delegation attended the post-Forum dialogue, presumably to show the US is serious about increasing its engagement in the Pacific, despite Hillary Clinton having cancelled two or possibly three trips to the region.

Disappointingly, the Forum got little profile in the press in Australia, with a few exceptions. The Australian press just don't seem to care much about Australia's nearest neighbours in the Pacific, unless of course there are domestic policy concerns over into the need for offshore offshore processing of asylum seekers.

As outsiders attempting to peer in, the Forum's biggest problem seems obvious. To get anything done, governments need partners, and this means civil society and the private sector need to be brought into the fold to ensure the promotion of pro-poor growth across the region.

Photo by Flickr user Alicakes, used under a Creative Commons license.