Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:05 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:05 | SYDNEY

Undermining the Pacific Islands Forum


Jenny Hayward-Jones


30 July 2010 10:01

On the surface, Fiji’s Engaging with the Pacific meeting held at Natadola last week appears to undermine the integrity of the Pacific Islands Forum. The meeting was convened after Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Edward Natapei deferred the Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders' meeting which was to be hosted by the incoming chair — Fiji’s leader, Frank Bainimarama.

Commodore Bainimarama blamed Australia for inducing Vanuatu's Prime Minister into deferring the MSG leaders meeting and expelled acting Australian High Commissioner Sarah Roberts to demonstrate his annoyance. 

Bainimarama’s assumptions and Graham Davis’ suggestion in The Australian that Australia used a $66 million aid package to 'strong-arm' Natapei fundamentally misunderstands not only Natapei but Australian diplomacy.

Bainimarama, underestimates Natapei’s own sense of national pride and integrity and desire to protect the regional organisation he will chair from next week. Hosting and chairing the Pacific Islands Forum is a matter of some pride for Pacific Island nations. 

Bainimarama’s MSG-Plus meeting threatened to undermine the Forum and thus to undermine Vanuatu’s position as incoming chair. Bainimarama has also slighted Natapei by declining his offer to assist Fiji with political dialogue. Natapei acted in the interests of Vanuatu and the Forum, not Australia. 

Australian diplomats undoubtedly discussed the issue with the Vanuatu Government but Canberra’s aid dollars would not have been used as leverage. Melanesian governments have long experience of continuing to attract significant aid from AusAID regardless of any behaviour that Australian foreign ministers and officials might regard as disappointing. Australian aid to Vanuatu is not under threat because of its relationship with Fiji.

The Natadola meeting was not just a meeting about Fiji; leaders and representatives from eleven Pacific Island countries discussed 'trade, security, sustainable development, good governance, climate change' — all issues regularly on the annual Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting.

Fiji’s press statement after the event was openly critical of the 'current model of Pacific regionalism to effectively address key development and governance challenges' — a thinly veiled attack on the Forum.

It was not clear which of the leaders present intends to take up the apparent endorsement of Fiji returning to the regional fold at next week’s Forum Leaders’ meeting — in para 7 of the communiqué.  I agree with Rowan Callick and Sean Dorney that Forum Leaders will hold the line on Fiji’s suspension from the Forum. 

They will all sign up to a communiqué drafted by the Forum Secretariat next week in Port Vila that will probably contradict the communiqué (drafted by the Fiji government) that they signed up to last week in Natadola and few of them will give a second thought to this contradiction.

Leaders have an opportunity to use their 'engagement with Fiji' to help improve the situation in Fiji but are more likely to leave their Natadola statement to buoy Bainimarama and their Port Vila statement to isolate him than implement the kind of actions that will assist the people of Fiji.

Bainimarama’s meeting may not in itself undermine the Pacific Islands Forum but the region’s leaders themselves will undermine the organisation if they continue to pay little heed to the statements they sign and do not demonstrate conviction in their own leadership. Australia can ill afford not to be represented by its Prime Minister in Vanuatu next week.

Photo by Flickr user pand0ra23's photostream, used under a Creative Commons licence.