Thinking of the Pacific Islands as a bloc obscures the complexity of the individual interests of each nation.
China’s growing presence in the Pacific Islands has attracted increasing attention in the last year. Reports from Fairfax Media in Australia in April 2018 that the new Chinese-built wharf in Luganville, Vanuatu was destined to be used as a Chinese military base sparked heated debate about the changing geopolitics of the region and Australia’s perceived loss of influence. In this debate, there was scant appreciation of the agency of Pacific Island countries themselves. Too often in international media coverage of the region, Pacific Island states are either viewed as client states of major powers or as a bloc of countries lacking individual identities.
It is not unusual for countries outside the region to treat the island countries of the Pacific as one entity for diplomatic purposes. China has invited Pacific Island leaders to meet President Xi Jinping at the upcoming November APEC Summit hosted by Papua New Guinea. This follows a meeting Xi convened in Fiji in 2014 with Pacific Island leaders, during his brief transit after attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane. Taking the time to travel to each island nation, which is no easy task with poor air transport links across the region, is not feasible for most leaders or even foreign ministers beyond Australia and New Zealand. In addition, small Pacific Island nations, with limited financial and human resources for diplomacy, benefit from working collectively and joining group meetings with external partners. The Pacific Islands Forum facilitates this with its standing invitation for representatives from Post-Forum Dialogue partner countries to meet with Pacific Island leaders and the Forum Secretariat after their annual summit.
These meetings can obscure the complexity of the individual interests of each nation as well as the differences between them. Relations between Pacific Island states are often poorly understood internationally and even within the region, in part because they are not covered much beyond national Pacific media outlets and because government-to-government interactions are usually confined to regional and subregional meetings where the focus tends to be on regional rather than bilateral issues.
Few Pacific Island countries can afford to have formal diplomatic representation in the capitals of their neighbors, although most have missions in Suva, Fiji. Limited direct flights between Pacific Island nations hinder opportunities for Island leaders to meet bilaterally on a regular basis. Bilateral visits at the level of leaders and ministers are rare and even officials generally only meet their counterparts at regional meetings. For example, the prime ministers of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, neighboring countries, recently convened bilateral talks in Brisbane, after both met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to discuss the construction of high-speed undersea internet cables. Pacific Island leaders prioritize travel to international summits or to visit major aid, trade, and investment partners above opportunities to visit their neighbors.
A notable exception is the relationship between Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Both countries – the two largest of the independent states of the region by population, land size, and GDP – have claims to regional leadership and have well-established bilateral trade and investment connections.
Fiji and Papua New Guinea: Bids for Regional Leadership
Fiji has traditionally been best equipped to lead the region with its status as the region’s geographic hub. It has an airport with links to many Pacific countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the United States; is home to two of the region’s key institutions: the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the University of the South Pacific; and has a well-resourced bureaucracy.
Papua New Guinea, by far the largest island state in land size and population and the most resource rich, has struggled to project its regional leadership ambitions. Preoccupied by the enormity of its domestic challenges, there has been inadequate capacity in Papua New Guinea to craft and build support for regional strategies. On coming to power in 2011, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill initially focused his energies on improving relations with Australia and then with trading partners in Asia. Preparations for hosting the APEC Summit in 2018 have consumed much of the limited resources Papua New Guinea has to pursue its international policy agenda, which in turn has constrained O’Neill from realizing his ambitions to see Papua New Guinea acknowledged as the region’s leader.
O’Neill was in Fiji in early July on a rare bilateral visit. O’Neill has never been close to Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama. As PNG’s prime minister, he has frequently distanced himself from Bainimarama’s international diplomacy and declined invitations to attend meetings of Bainimarama’s pet regional initiative, the Pacific Islands Development Forum. But O’Neill appears to have stepped back from pushing PNG’s leadership ambitions over those of Fiji by suggesting in Suva that Papua New Guinea and Fiji work together and “get on with doing what is best for our countries and the region.”
As evidence of his commitment to improving the bilateral relationship, O’Neill also called for negotiations to develop a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Fiji. As Papua New Guinea already enjoys free trade with Fiji via the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group Trade Agreement, which allows free trade in goods between the member states of the Group, it is not clear what new benefits might be expected from a bilateral FTA but the sentiment was no doubt appreciated in Fiji.
O’Neill has extended an invitation to Pacific Island leaders to attend the APEC Summit as PNG’s guests. He believes Papua New Guinea can be a bridge between the island nations of the Pacific and APEC members. The opportunity for Pacific Island leaders to have their say on climate change at APEC, as they have done in other forums such as the recent G7 Summit in Canada, may prove to be a great result for Papua New Guinea.
The Fiji government will be pleased that Papua New Guinea is again recognizing Fiji’s important role in the region. Fiji’s exclusion from regional meetings following the military coup in 2006 (and until after elections in 2014) disrupted intra-Pacific diplomacy. During this period, it was difficult for Fiji to claim to be representing or speaking for the region in global forums. Fiji’s bilateral relationships with some of its Pacific neighbors were strained. Fiji’s government complained loudly about its diplomatic isolation from the region and set about developing new international partnerships. Bainimarama established his own regional forum, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, and invited other external players including China, Russia, Indonesia, and some of the Gulf States to attend its meetings – enabling Fiji to project its voice in the region and exclude Australia and New Zealand.
Convergent and Divergent Interests
A further consequence of Fiji’s time in the regional diplomatic wilderness, combined with the problem that Australia and New Zealand did not share the island states’ concerns about climate change, was that the leaders and ministers of smaller island countries were emboldened to speak up for their interests internationally. The former president of tiny Kiribati, Anote Tong, and the late foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony deBrum, became prominent representatives of the region in advocating for more action to address climate change and attracted unprecedented international attention to the dangerous effects of climate change in the region.
The current president of the Marshall Islands, Dr. Hilda Heine, has developed a strong regional leadership role since she was elected in early 2016; importantly, she was the first woman elected to lead a Pacific Island country. Heine is an outstanding advocate for her country’s and the region’s concerns about climate change in international forums and is an adroit user of social media to argue the case for international action to address the concerns of small island states. The government of Vanuatu has similarly been extremely effective in promoting action on climate change and is now leading, with the United Kingdom, a Commonwealth initiative to reduce plastics pollution in the Pacific and other oceans.
Another contemporary example of successful Pacific Islands diplomacy is the work of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group at the United Nations. PSIDS plays an important role in projecting the voice of Pacific Island countries and advocating for international action to address their concerns – especially on climate change – at the UN. The Pacific Island representatives at the UN who make up this grouping have leveraged the cooperation and assistance of better-resourced countries at the UN and lobbied very effectively for action on Pacific Islands concerns and for more financial assistance for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.
The generally unified stance on climate change that Pacific Island countries have adopted largely disguises the divergent interests of the same countries in other fields. The attention island states devote to subregional groupings outside of the Pacific Islands Forum highlights these different interests. The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) is the most prominent of these. The MSG has been a force for Melanesian unity and an example of collective action and economic integration by small states. But it suffers now from internal division over one of its founding principles – the “promotion of independence as the inalienable right of indigenous peoples of Melanesia and the promotion of their human rights” – specifically those in West Papua. The bold efforts of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands to continue to advocate for the self-determination of West Papua and the rights of the people of West Papua have increasingly been at odds with the approach of Papua New Guinea and Fiji, which are more inclined not to do anything to disrupt their good relationships with Indonesia.
The divisions came to a head earlier this year when Solomon Islands Deputy Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare expressed his unhappiness that Fiji pressured its fellow MSG members to accept Indonesia’s bid to be admitted as an associate member of the group in 2015. Fiji’s Defence Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola hit back, suggesting Sogavare was playing politics with his allegation. Outspoken Solomon Islands Opposition MP Matthew Wale has said Indonesia’s seat at the table at MSG meetings diminished the organization’s ability to call out human rights abuses in West Papua and lobby for self-determination.
While the MSG has been faltering this year, the newer Polynesian Leaders’ Group (PLG) has been expanding. Originally formed in September 2011 by Samoan Prime Minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, the PLG is envisioned as a forum to pursue Polynesian interests as distinct from Melanesian interests. The initial membership (Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, and Niue), has since expanded to include the nonindependent territories of American Samoa, French Polynesia, Tokelau, and Wallis and Futuna. This year the U.S. state of Hawaii and Chilean island Rapa Nui joined the group.
Tuilaepa intended that the PLG would facilitate cooperation in several fields of development. It has also served to be a useful vehicle for driving the Manatua submarine telecommunications cable project, which is expected to deliver faster and more reliable internet services to several Polynesian countries. But if the PLG is to go down a similar path as the MSG in supporting the self-determination of Polynesian territories that make up its membership, it may find itself facing similar competing interests and divisions.
Pacific Island leaders have consistently emphasized the importance of democratic values in the communiques from the annual Forum Leaders’ Summit and in the founding documents of the subregional groupings, the MSG and the PLG. Commitments to holding free and fair elections, practicing good governance, upholding the rule of law, and addressing corruption are regularly mentioned. But in practice, few Pacific Island governments are willing to press these issues with each other. Actions by the government of Nauru over the last few years that have undermined the rule of law and limited freedom of expression have gone unremarked by other Pacific Island governments. They generally prefer to respect a value more important to them – that of not interfering in the domestic affairs of neighbors.
Pacific Island countries appear to be less successful in dealing with each other than they have proved to be when acting collectively to promote their shared interests. But as the latter is more likely to deliver results, they have their priorities straight.