Apia prepares for Forum leaders

By Nic Maclellan (Islands Business magazine) in Apia, Samoa

As dusk falls, workers are still out and about along Apia’s waterfront, whitewashing the curbs, clearing rubbish and finishing last minute paint jobs. Samoa’s capital is getting ready for the 48th Pacific Islands Forum.

The theme of the annual regional gathering is The Blue Pacific – Our Sea of Islands. The meeting will highlight the oceans, climate change and resource management, from tuna fisheries to deep seabed mining.

Speaking to journalists before the meeting, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said: “By the sheer fact of our geography, such as trends associated with shifts in the centres of global power, this places the Pacific at the centre of contemporary global geopolitics.”

“Embracing this as a unique opportunity in the history of the region,” he said. “The Blue Pacific provides a new narrative for Pacific regionalism and how the Forum engages with the world. It will require a different way of working together that prioritises The Blue Pacific as the core driver of Forum policy making and collective action.”
Following June’s successful UN Oceans Conference, this week’s leaders’ meeting is an opportunity to forge a unified regional voice, with Fiji to host global climate talks at the next Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn in November.

But there’s always stormy weather in the Blue Pacific. As the 18 Forum delegations meet in Apia, the drowning of Houston is a reminder of the challenge of global warming, at a time that climate denial rules in the White House and US EPA. Guam is under the shadow of the US-Korea nuclear stand-off. It’s getting harder and harder to forge a regional consensus on complex issues like West Papua, nuclear disarmament and decolonisation.

This week as well, a number of leaders will be attending in caretaker mode. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister will replace PM Bill English, who faces national elections on 23 September. Tonga’s ‘Akilisi Pohiva lost office last week but is still scheduled to arrive in Apia as interim leader. New Caledonia’s Philippe Germain was also unable to renew his Presidency, as anti-independence ministers in his government refused to re-elect him in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle. Palau’s Tommy Remengesau is entangled in the East Asian security crisis, while – as expected – Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is a no show, although his government will be represented at ministerial level.

Australia’s re-engagement

Australia’s delegation will be led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for International Development and Pacific Affairs Concetta Fierravanti Wells. With a one seat majority, an unruly backbench arguing over climate policy and same-sex marriage, and three government ministers before the High Court after breaching rules on dual nationality, Turnbull may be happy for a break from Canberra’s winter. The Australian government will be in good hands in his absence, with New Zealand citizen Barnaby Joyce stepping up as Acting Prime Minister (a wonderful example of the way that the Forum can encourage cross-Tasman co-operation in the aftermath of the All Black’s recent thumping of the Wallabies).

With the Turnbull government preparing a new foreign policy paper, to be released later this year, the Forum’s largest member has pledged a renewed commitment to “regional engagement.” In a major speech last month in Suva, Foreign Minister Bishop said: “The Australian Government is focused on three goals to strengthen our engagement – we seek stronger partnerships for economic growth; we seek stronger partnerships for our security; and we seek to support relationships between our people.”

As well as encouraging initiatives through the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO) and local business councils, Canberra is using overseas aid to directly fund initiatives by Australian corporations like Carnival Cruises and the ANZ Bank. With at least 20 per cent of its overseas aid budget already focussed on ‘aid for trade’, the Turnbull government is looking to further increase support for the private sector.

With Julie Bishop committed to a “New Colombo Plan” to encourage Asia-Pacific students to study in Australia, the University of the South Pacific and other regional tertiary bodies will be monitoring the priority given to regional education institutions.

There will be extensive discussion on labour mobility in Apia this week, a central economic focus for island nations. Despite this, the new PACER-Plus trade agreement, signed by 10 countries in June in Nuku’alofa, leaves the issue of temporary labour migration to a stand-alone, non-binding side agreement. In her speech, Bishop claimed that “the PACER Plus trade arrangements will breathe new life into our economic and trade relationship”, but this is undercut by the refusal of Fiji and Papua New Guinea – the two largest island economies – to sign on to the regional trade deal (after initially deferring their position, Vanuatu’s Council of Ministers has just decided to sign the treaty, opening the way for a signing ceremony on the margins of the Forum meeting).

Drawing on the experience of regional interventions like RAMSI in Solomon Islands and PRAN in Nauru, this week’s Forum may also discuss the concept of “Biketawa-Plus” – an extension of the 2000 Biketawa Agreement which led to a greater Forum role in regional political and security crises. The debate on security comes at a time of increasing concern over trans-national crime and illegal fishing in Pacific waters.

But, like discussion of economic priorities, the Forum’s priorities for regional security will be hotly debated. The organisation’s longstanding commitment to regional stability is under challenge from a range of people who do not benefit from an unjust status quo: independence movements in Bougainville, New Caledonia and West Papua; civil society groups seeking a greater focus on human security and human rights rather than policing and security sector reform; or island states whose very national security is threatened by the failure of OECD governments to ramp up their ambition on greenhouse gas reductions.

Debates over climate policy

With Fiji preparing for COP23, the Bainimarama government has written to Forum host Samoa seeking an opportunity for a side event to forge a united Pacific voice to take to the global climate negotiations. This would build on Fiji’s recent presidency of the UN General Assembly – an unprecedented triumph for the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) caucus at the United Nations. But unity over climate policy is hard to achieve, given the actions of the Forum’s largest member.

A recent Australian contribution of $6 million to COP23 preparations is overshadowed by Turnbull government debates over multi-million dollar fossil fuel projects, including construction of a High Energy Low Emissions (HELE) coal plant in Queensland. Key government ministers are pushing for funds from Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) to be used for a $900 million grant to build a railway line from Queensland’s central Galilee Basin to the coast, benefiting the Indian corporation Adani. This would open the way for massive new coal exports, even as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change requires a rapid shift towards renewables.

Canberra’s rhetoric of common purpose on disaster preparedness is belied by this year’s closure of Australian Broadcasting Corporation shortwave broadcasts to Melanesia – a vital tool for people in outer islands and isolated rural communities at times of natural disaster.

As Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine stressed in a speech in Canberra last May: “Now is not the time to be debating the science, trashing solar power, or building new coal mines…I can assure you it does influence the way Australia is viewed in the Pacific.”

In Apia, the Smaller Island States (SIS) meet on Monday before the formal leaders meeting. Based on a new strategy adopted in 2016, SIS leaders will be pushing for further action on access to climate finance, support for adaptation initiatives and new post-2030 emissions targets. Tuvalu will be advancing the debate on climate displacement, as a key component of the region’s global warming agenda.

For Forum Deputy Secretary General Cristelle Pratt, this year’s climate talks in Bonn are a crucial opportunity for the Pacific: “In many ways, this is why COP23 is very important, for Pacific leaders to show even greater leadership and strength and resolve. We must ensure what was agreed to in Paris is achieved, and we hold all of the states who have ratified the Paris agreement to account.”

Security challenges

The Forum meeting comes at a time of international uncertainty, as US President Donald Trump threatens “fire and fury” against North Korea, with President Kim Jong-un threatening missile strikes in the direction of the US territory of Guahan (Guam). The latest drama is a reminder that Guahan is host to the Apra Harbour naval base, Anderson Air Force Base and numerous other US military installations that take up more than a quarter of the island’s land area. It’s not lost on local Chamorro that they’re a pawn in this new Cold War, when they can’t even vote for the US Presidency and their representative in Congress is a non-voting delegate.

As they met in Suva last month, Forum Foreign Ministers recommended that leaders in Apia condemn North Korea’s repeated breach of UN disarmament resolutions, However there’s no mention in the communique of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Samoa and other Pacific states were all involved in drafting the new global agreement, which delegitimises nuclear proliferation and pledges assistance to the survivors of nuclear testing.

In contrast, Australia boycotted the negotiations in March and June that led to this important new agreement against weapons of mass destruction. The treaty opens for signature on 20 September at the United Nations in New York, less than a fortnight after the conclusion of the Forum leaders meeting – island nations will be amongst the first to sign, given the tragic legacies of fifty years of US, British and French nuclear testing across the region.

Australia’s isolation from its Pacific neighbours on this disarmament treaty highlights the Forum’s central dilemma. To forge a strong, unified regional stand is impossible when one of the larger Forum members blocks a strong consensus on issues such as decolonisation, climate change or nuclear disarmament.

For many years, Pacific island non-government organisations have questioned whether regional organisations like the Forum are meeting their needs and aspirations or have been captured by key donors. Now governments are increasingly asking the same question. At a time of geo-political uncertainty, Forum island leaders are often using other fora, such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) or the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), to advance their own priorities.

The Forum’s Suva-based secretariat is going through major changes. The first term of Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor ends in December, and Forum leaders will discuss her position at this week’s meeting.

The Secretariat has undertaken internal reviews, including an Analysis of Governance and Financing, a Review of Forum Meetings and an overview “State of Pacific Regionalism report 2017”. With Australia and New Zealand providing the bulk of the Secretariat’s core funding, the task of developing a new funding strategy – with the independence that implies – becomes all the more important.

Speaking before the leaders arrive in Apia, Dame Meg Taylor said that the Forum Secretariat cannot bind its members, but must promote debate in Pacific countries, even on controversial topics.

“I think that if it comes to a vote at the United Nations, we may not all be in the one collective in terms of how we handle issues of human rights, some of the fisheries issues and even some of the climate issues. But our work is to get the Pacific to start thinking in a broader context on the issues that affect all of us.”

“I see the Secretariat’s job is to encourage that collective thinking and work collectively to raise issues at the international forums,” she said. “Every country is a sovereign country, but part of regionalism is that sometimes you have to give away a bit of your sovereignty – or sometimes a lot of your sovereignty.”

New era of uncertainty

For Dame Meg and her Secretariat team, there are a number of storm clouds on the horizon, which will tax the Forum’s diplomatic skills.

With Britain diverted by Brexit and Donald Trump’s administration in weekly crisis, how can the Forum bump its climate concerns up their agenda? Do the Europeans really love us, or are they just after the fish? With support tumbling in the polls, can the new Macron administration in Paris spare the political capital to resolve who can vote in New Caledonia’s November 2018 referendum on self-determination? With the Trump administration wavering on its global climate commitments, will this backsliding spread to other OECD nations?

Closer to home, how will the newly elected O’Neill Government react to a 2019 vote for independence in Bougainville? Can Australia clean-up its offshore warehousing of asylum seekers and refugees, or will the Turnbull Government, distracted by domestic dramas, just dump the problem into the laps of the PNG and Nauru governments? Will Canberra meet its global climate finance obligations by 2020, with Australia’s overseas aid at its lowest ever proportion of national income? How long can Canberra and Port Moresby block real Forum action on self-determination in West Papua?

The list goes on and on..

Image of 48th Pacific Island Forum Leaders chair and host, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. Photo: Nic Maclellan