Pacific regionalism… it’s tricky

It does not come as a surprise to learn that the summit to discuss Pacific regional architecture that was due to be held in Sydney in March has now been postponedapparently ‘indefinitely’. The short lead-in time between its announcement in October and the proposed time slot was always going to be a significant hurdle for DFAT. Their ability to persuade leaders from the region to attend was further hampered by the government reshuffle that saw Brett Mason replaced as Parliamentary Secretary by Steven Ciobo, whose Pacific experience is limited.

Whilst there were some who viewed this Australia/Fiji sponsored initiative positively, it would appear that the more widely held perception in the region was that this summit was neither necessary nor appropriate – an argument we articulated when the summit was first announced.

The next best opportunity to discuss issues pertaining to regional architecture will be at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting to be held in Port Moresby in July. However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds. As things currently stand, Fiji has declined to rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum so there is no guarantee (or indication) that Prime Minister Bainimarama will attend that meeting. The Fiji government moved quickly to prepare a position paper outlining its proposals for refashioning PIF membership and has been busy canvassing support from others, including Tuvalu and Tonga. But the anticipated forum for this discussion was a summit in Sydney with Fiji as co-sponsor not a Forum Leaders’ meeting in Port Moresby with Peter O’Neill in the host’s chair.

It all goes show: Pacific regionalism is tricky, even for big players like Australia and Fiji.

Tess Newton Cain

Dr Tess Newton Cain is the principal of TNC Pacific Consulting and is a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre. She is a citizen of Vanuatu where she lived for almost 20 years and is now based in Brisbane. Tess is a specialist in Pacific regionalism and sub-regionalism, with a particular interest in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. She is a regular contributor to the Devpolicy blog, where she often co-writes with Matthew Dornan. She is the co-ordinator of the 'Pacific Conversations' series in which she discusses politics and policy with established and emerging leaders from the Pacific island region.

Matthew Dornan

Matthew Dornan is Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre. He heads our program of research into Pacific development. His research focuses on aid flows, regional integration, energy, and broader infrastructure challenges in the Pacific islands region. Matthew has a PhD from ANU, and previously worked for the Australian aid program in the Pacific.

4 Comments

  • Thanks Tess.

    Interesting news and comments. I think this discussion should take place at many levels and that PIFS should allow for this to happen. When this discussion mushrooms then we will need to harness the outcomes of the discussions and bring that together at some stage in the future. There are many ports of call between now and then and we can begin to capture the discussions and bring the outcomes forward for a start. Secondly, AUS&NZ will need to find their place in the new geopolitical configuration that is currently being shaped outside as well as inside the Forum. Lastly, the Forum should recognize that there are many more spaces that have opened up over the last six years when they went into shut down mode. We will have until 2017 – 2020 to figure this one out and space and time should be given to our people to talanoa on this one…yu save?

    • Thank you for your contribution Fei

      I agree wholeheartedly that the future of regionalism/regional architecture cannot begin and end with the Pacific Islands Forum – there are many more aspects, not least of which are the sub-regional groups that have become increasingly active in recent years. And yes this is a discussion that needs to be conducted in an inclusive manner to give all parties adequate opportunity to reflect and contribute. Bridging the gap between regional decision-making and national priorities is not a new challenge but it remains a very present one.

      Tess

  • Hi Transform & thanks for your comment, which is pertinent as always. For what it’s worth we can be sure that at least a couple of relevant people said ‘No’ outright and I agree there were probably others who were thinking it while saying ‘yes’.

  • I am not surprised. Julie Bishop concocted the idea at a cocktail party in Suva. It was conceived in haste and put to PM Bainimara who said “yes”. That was a Pacific Islands “yes” which is usually made up of a many “no’s”. In other words Pacific Islanders generally would never say “no” outright to you!

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