Let’s get realistic about regionalism

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 7th 2017

Last week I was in Fiji, working on a research project as part of a joint ANU/USP team. For a number of reasons I spent a bit of time thinking and talking about regionalism in the Pacific.

It’s a tricky topic. Some people find it very boring. And if you are allergic to acronyms, regionalism is best avoided that’s for sure. The term ‘regionalism’ can mean different things to different people. For some people it is all about trade issues, others are focused on security and others talk only about pooled services.

But the most common reaction to Pacific regionalism is probably frustration. At the national level, policy makers and politicians say they are frustrated because regional organisations do not offer anything that helps with their domestic agendas. Within the regionalism machinery, officials bemoan the fact that delegations have agendas that are only focused on nationalistic concerns.

 So, should we call the whole thing off? One of the particular characteristics of regionalism in our part of the world is that it is voluntary. There is no grand political bargain such as exists (for now) among the countries that came together to form the European Union. We don’t have a Pacific parliament that can pass laws, which bind member countries. Pacific regionalism is more like a club, whose membership is voluntary.

So if Vanuatu (or any other Pacific island country) doesn’t want to take part in the regionalism project they don’t have to. The officials don’t need to go to meetings, same for the ministers and we don’t need to worry about paying (or not) our subscriptions to various regional agencies and organisations.

But we remain members, we send our officials and ministers to meetings (the Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting took place in Suva this week) and we contribute to the costs of regionalism and the machinery it has spawned. So if we are going to remain members, how can we change the landscape so that the levels of frustration are reduced and the available opportunities can be better identified and acted upon?

The starting point is information. At the national level, we need to be better informed about what regional organisations and activities mean for us. This needs to go beyond ‘it’s all a waste of time’ to actually learn more about what regional priorities have been decided and how they are being progressed. What is the Framework for Pacific Regionalism? What does Pacific Islands Trade and Invest do? What are the implications of signing up to PACER Plus (or not?)

These are important questions that are significant at the national level as well as regionally. They reflect decisions made by our political leaders and they occupy the time and energy of our officials. If we are going to make sensible decisions about whether to take part in regional activities, we need to have access to information that informs how we answer them. We should expect representatives of regional organisations to be engaging with national media organisations when they visit member countries. We would hope that our national media outlets ask questions of these organisations about what they are doing and why it is important or relevant for Vanuatu to be involved.

In addition, those who represent their countries in regional forums need to have a better understanding of what regional cooperation is. It is not appropriate in all circumstances. But in some situations working together may have something to offer whether in terms of accessing climate finance or sharing the costs of promoting our region as a tourism destination to new markets. Those who take part in regional decision-making need to have a very clear as to what their national position is, there is no doubt about that. In addition they need to develop a sense of where there are more opportunities for everyone by coming together as a region. They need to feed back to organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat what advice is needed to inform this.

There are serious and ongoing concerns about the state of regionalism in the Pacific it is true. And there are plenty of pressing concerns for politicians and policy makers in their own backyards without looking for things to do regionally. But the fact is that we joined the club voluntarily and if we are in it, then we should be looking for opportunities to make the best of it.


We need a white paper not a white wash

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on January 27th, 2017

In my recent ‘Pacific Predictions’ I noted that in 2017, the Government of Australia will prepare and release a white paper on foreign policy.

A white paper is something similar to our Vanuatu 2030 — it sets out the framework for a particular policy area that will guide the state machinery in the medium to longer term.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently accepting submissions from anyone who cares to make one. We are also expecting the release of a new ‘Pacific Strategy’. (Which begs the question, should Pacific island countries have an ‘Australia Strategy’?)

 The Foreign Policy White Paper is something of a big deal. There hasn’t been one since 2003 and, as DFAT tell us, ‘the international environment has changed profoundly over the past 13 years’. Julie Bishop is generally recognised as one of the better Australian foreign ministers of recent times so it is not surprising that she should be prosecuting an exercise of this type. Having said that, foreign affairs do not figure very highly in Australian political discussions, with little attention if any given to them during election campaigns. And within the small amount of bandwidth accorded to foreign affairs, Pacific issues rate very low on the scale.

Even so, the policy processes referred to above present an important opportunity for Australian policy makers to think about how their country can regain and maintain its status in our region. Admittedly, global events of 2016 have created some conundrums that will test Canberra’s creativity. But that must not detract from the importance of Australia’s relationships with its nearest neighbours.

I will be preparing a submission in relation to the white paper and I’m not going to give away the punch line here. But I will raise one aspect that I’ve been thinking about for a while that I don’t believe gets enough attention. In Vanuatu, our primary experience of Australia’s government is by way of our interactions with DFAT. But our bilateral relationship with Australia is affected by numerous other government departments and agencies that we don’t necessarily deal with directly. Part of DFAT’s role is to liaise with the rest of the Australian government machinery to try and ensure that what they are doing is in line with and supportive of foreign policy objectives. This is an area where we need to see more and better activity and it needs to be examined closely in this year’s policy development activities in Canberra.

Let me give you a couple of examples to consider. The government of Australia has made significant investments of aid money in restoring and further developing our tourism sector. This is part of their economic diplomacy platform, which is based around a belief that small countries such as Vanuatu need opportunities to grow their economies, create jobs and improve livelihoods more than they need aid. As we are realising, Vanuatu is an attractive destination for Chinese tourists, as that market matures and we see a rise in independent, well-funded travellers. In the 12 months to November 30, 2016 the number of Chinese tourists to visit Australia was just over one million. If 2% of those visitors to Australia included a side-trip to Vanuatu as part of their itinerary, the number of air arrivals would increase by 50,000. There are several reasons why this might be difficult to achieve but perhaps the most significant one is the refusal by the Australian government (via the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) to provide multi-entry visas to visitors from China. So it is not possible for Chinese tourists to add a ‘side trip’ to Vanuatu into their itinerary because once they leave Australia they have to apply for another visa to re-enter.

And then there are our agricultural exports to Australia, such as they are. Here we face a double whammy. Australian domestic policy is the reason for the ban on commercial importation of kava, which means that our producers have to seek more distant (and more expensive) markets. In relation to other products such as root crops, nuts and spices a very serious (but insufficiently discussed) impediment is getting products approved by Australian quarantine and biosecurity agencies. This is a hurdle faced by other Pacific island countries as well. You might think that the problem is that Pacific agricultural products are poor quality and do not pass the tests for biosecurity. And you would be largely wrong. As Wes Morgan has educated me the issue is not that the products are not good enough, it is that the Australian processes take so long that producers have to go elsewhere to find a value chain that works. So an agreement like PACER Plus that (we are told) will make it easier for our country to trade with Australia will struggle to deliver on that promise if the relevant bits of government machinery don’t get the memo.

Australia’s foreign policy white paper and, perhaps more so, its Pacific strategy need to demonstrate that these issues (and others) have been well thought out and factored into the blueprints for our future relationship.

Photo Credit: Dan McGarry


Pacific Perspectives in 2016

This item was first published on the East Asia Forum on January 6th, 2017

Authored jointly with Matthew Dornan

2016 was a big year for Pacific politics. Vanuatu and Nauru held elections — each in the context of significant concerns about governance. Censorship, deportation of the chief justice and arrests of opposition MPs have led to a serious decline in the credibility of democracy in Nauru in recent years. In Vanuatu, the election this year followed 14 members of parliament having been jailed for corruption in 2015.

Fiji’s international profile reached new highs when it assumed the presidency of the UN General Assembly. But domestically there were concerns raised about detention of opposition figures, a sudden cabinet reshuffle and the impacts of retrospective land legislation.

New Caledonia experienced volatility as it approaches the conclusion of the Noumea Accords process, at which point the population will vote on independence from France.

Economic developments have generally been less exciting, with the exception of PNG where the collapse of commodity prices has contributed to a budget crisis. Pacific island countries recorded modest economic growth averaging almost 3 per cent in 2016 — an improvement on their 2015 performance. Growth rates were volatile in many states, and remittances, aid and income from tourism and fisheries were the most important sources of revenue.

Natural disasters again had significant economic impacts. A number of countries suffered serious droughts, with deaths from famine reported in PNG. In February, Cyclone Winston struck Fiji, causing damage valued at F$2.85 billion (approximately US$1.35 billion) — equivalent to almost 30 per cent of GDP. There were 43 lives were lost and 3360 houses were destroyed. The category four cyclone occurred less than one year after Cyclone Pam (a category five storm) hit Vanuatu, causing damage equivalent to 64 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Pacific island countries continued their prominent advocacy on climate change. The Pacific Small Island Developing States group was a key driver of the 1.5 degree warming target agreed at the COP 21 summit in Paris in late 2015. On the back of this agreement, Pacific island governments pushed in 2016 for the incorporation of ‘loss and damage’ into the international climate change architecture.

They also advocated for better access to adaptation funding — advocacy that led to donor support for accessing the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and which contributed to an innovative strategy that will see Pacific micro-states submit a joint funding proposal to the GCF. Next year, Fiji will co-chair the Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn in November, and will be co-president of the United Nations oceans conference in New York in June.

Tuna fisheries also featured prominently in 2016. The eight Pacific island members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement — who collectively supply half the world’s skipjack tuna — continue to benefit from their establishment of a vessel day scheme, which is a cartel-like arrangement that has led to dramatic increases in revenue for PNA members. In 2016, licensing revenues received by PNA members were around US$400 million, compared to revenues in 2010 of US$64 million.

This success has influenced other agreements. The US-South Pacific Fisheries Treaty collapsed in February when Pacific island countries refused to continue providing US-flagged vessels with access to tuna at discounted prices. Pacific nations and the United States agreed upon a seven-year agreement to replace the existing treaty in December, which better reflects higher prices for accessing tuna fisheries. Pacific island countries also pushed back against proposals made at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission by the European Union and United States, which would have weakened the vessel day scheme.

Regionally, negotiations for the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus) trade agreement between Pacific island countries and Australia and New Zealand proceeded with mixed success. Papua New Guinea announced in August that it would withdraw from the process, and Fiji made a similar statement before deciding to re-join negotiations. Concerns about infant industry protection and most-favoured nation status drove these decisions. This potentially leaves the two biggest island economies outside the treaty.

On a positive note, the expansion of labour mobility opportunities to Pacific islanders in Australia and New Zealand has generated significant goodwill in the region. Remittances were a key source of income for households affected by recent cyclones in both Fiji and Vanuatu.

Political tensions continue to affect regional cooperation in other areas. The dispute is ongoing between Fiji and the Pacific Islands Forum — the region’s pre-eminent political body — with Fiji’s leader maintaining his refusal to attend leaders’ meetings. Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama has said he will attend meetings only when Australia and New Zealand withdraw from the Forum.

Instead, this year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting saw a decision to expand the group by granting full membership status to French Polynesia and New Caledonia — a move that appears to cement France as an established and future Pacific power, and reflects a shift (back) to security as the primary concern of the regional order. It remains to be seen what this will mean for the future of the Pacific Islands Forum, and for (currently lukewarm) Fijian relations with Australia and New Zealand.

Matthew Dornan (Twitter: @mattdornan) is Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre, and Tess Newton Cain (Twitter: @CainTess) is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.


A reframed Pacific regionalism: rise of the foreign ministers

This item was first published on the Devpolicy blog and is co-authored with Matthew Dornan.

In a post last September, we examined the first year of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism in the aftermath of the Port Moresby Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting. This year the action was in the Federated States of Micronesia, where for the first time, non-independent territories (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) were granted full Forum membership status.

Another first which went largely unnoticed was the inaugural standing meeting of the Forum Foreign Ministers in August (the meeting last year was a one-off affair; as of this year it becomes an annual occurrence). The foreign ministers’ meeting now serves as an additional filter on proposals submitted as part of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. Whereas previously proposals were assessed by the Specialist Subcommittee on Regionalism (SSCR) tasked with reviewing regional public policy submissions and vetted by the Forum Officials Committee, they are now also considered (and vetted) by foreign ministers.

The prior meeting of foreign ministers appears to have influenced what was discussed (and not discussed) in the Forum leaders’ meeting. It may also have bolstered the influence of Australia and New Zealand given their foreign ministers’ interest in regional affairs.

Australia and New Zealand were vocal supporters of admitting New Caledonia and French Polynesia into the Forum, a move agreed by leaders despite the subject not having been raised through the SSCR process, opposition from pro-independence groups within those territories, and reports of unease among some Forum member states. Of course, the inclusion of the French territories also sits at odds with the original impetus for establishing the South Pacific Forum (as it was then known) in 1971. France at the time had prevented discussion of decolonisation and French nuclear testing in meetings of the South Pacific Commission. The Forum Communiqué announced this important development in one factual line — “Leaders accepted French Polynesia and New Caledonia as full Members of the Pacific Islands Forum” – in a possible indication of disagreement among some Forum members.

The decision to include the territories, although considered inevitable by some, in the immediate term looks a lot like a response to Bainimarama’s continued criticism of Australian and New Zealand membership of the Forum. The move provides an entry for another OECD country (beyond Australia and New Zealand) to influence Forum activities. It may not have been complete coincidence that events in Fiji overshadowed those of Forum over the weekend, with the removal of Fiji’s Foreign Minister from his position by Bainimarama mid-meeting (via email) followed by the concerning arrest of opposition and trade union leaders. Bainimarama will now take up the position of Foreign Minister himself.

Australian and New Zealand influence was also evident in other areas. The leaders’ communiqué’s positive spin on PACER Plus was especially striking. It made no reference to Vanuatu’s concerns about the agreement, nor to Fiji’s decision four days ago not to join the agreement (the communiqué did describe Fiji as having reservations regarding the text). However, it did confirm previous comments by PNG’s Minister for Trade that PNG would not sign up – a stance confirmed by O’Neill at the Forum.

The relegation of West Papua as an issue was also notable. We might have expected to see West Papua given more prominence in the communiqué, given the fact that of the 48 regional policy public submissions that were received, 13 concerned West Papua. Instead, last year’s measured statement announcing the establishment of an independent fact-finding mission looks positively assertive when compared to this year’s communiqué, which simply states that leaders “recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua (Papua) should remain on their agenda” (while also agreeing “on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia”). The influence of the larger Forum members was likely at play here, including that of Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Fiji.

What of other issues discussed by leaders?

A positive development was the increased assertiveness of the Small Island States (SIS) group, which now also includes FSM. The leaders of the Small Island States (SIS) met earlier in the year in Palau and agreed upon a five-point Regional Strategy [pdf]– a significant component of which involves preparation of joint applications for funding from the Global Climate Fund (GCF). Not only will this be the first such joint application that the GCF will have received, but it has the potential to inform future activities by the Forum.

Fisheries management was again on the agenda, having been discussed at last year’s leaders’ meeting. Leaders endorsed the work of the Fisheries Taskforce in implementing the Fisheries Roadmap agreed in 2015. Importantly, leaders supported the view of the taskforce that there need be no change to the Vessel Day Scheme. This had previously been the source of some concern within the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Secretariat. The call by leaders for an expanded focus on coastal fisheries is a positive development.

As occurred last year, the communiqué discussed the importance of climate change for Forum island members. Although bold, there was not a great deal that was new here. An exception was leaders’ agreement on a Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific [pdf], which aims to integrate the region’s climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction frameworks into one. This followed bungled efforts last year to do the same, which saw leaders reject a draft given opposition by some member states to the detail of that text. The voluntary nature of the framework agreed this year was no doubt helpful in securing leaders’ agreement. The framework has nevertheless been criticised for not doing enough to integrate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

Widely reported in Australia was the PM’s announcement of $80m over three years for disaster response, which adds to the $300m over 4 years already announced for climate adaptation in the region. Although that figure sounds impressive, $75m per year ($300m over 4 years) is below that provided in 2013, 2012 or 2011 (in that last year, Australia provided just under $170m). It does nevertheless mark an improvement on the dismal $40m provided in 2014 (as discussed previously on this blog).

The communiqué’s reference to cervical cancer and ICT – two initiatives canvassed by leaders last year as part of the SSCR process – is especially notable. We criticised the proposals at the time for being vague; it was unclear what their regional dimension was. Read between the lines of this year’s communiqué and it would appear that leaders agree – they pointed out that, “while important, these issues do not require their continued discussion to be progressed”.

How does the 2016 Forum leaders’ meeting measure up? There was less potential for controversy than in 2015, when tensions over climate change between Australia (in particular) and New Zealand and Forum island members were prominent. Fewer leaders attended this year’s meeting (five Forum island leaders instead sent delegates). Leaders did discuss issues of importance for the Pacific, but the outcomes of those discussion were limited, with much of the communiqué repeating previous statements (with some notable exceptions, including on fisheries management).

In many ways this year’s outcome reflects the Framework for Pacific Regionalism’s success in attracting high level political engagement. Having very clearly set a political agenda for last year’s leaders’ meeting, the interjection of the foreign ministers this year would appear to have had a diluting effect in some areas, with the influence of Julie Bishop and Murray McCully evident on issues such as West Papua. Australian and New Zealand influence appears to have driven other decisions as well, including the status of the French territories. Whether such political engagement has the unintended effect of undermining future engagement with civil society through the SSCR process remains to be seen.


Another review of the Pacific regional architecture is neither warranted nor appropriate

This item was first published by Matthew Dornan & Tess Newton Cainon on Devpolicy on November 11th, 2014

The joint announcement by Fiji and Australia that the Pacific regional architecture should be reviewed has taken both the Pacific islands region and Australian foreign affairs establishment by surprise.

We can only speculate about the origins and underlying purpose of the announced review. Very little detail has yet to be made available, save that Australia will host a meeting of regional leaders (the exact composition of that group yet to be determined) in Sydney in February 2015. But whatever the trigger for this announcement, it raises some important questions about the future of regionalism and, more particularly, the respective roles of Australia and Fiji within it.

Is there either the need or appetite for such a review, given the recent completion of a series of reviews with focus on and implications for the regional architecture?

There is much that remains unclear but what is evident is that the ‘review’ (as described in the Fiji media) or ‘discussion’ (as described on the Australian Foreign Minister’s website) has arisen amidst efforts by Australia to normalise relations with Fiji. The exchange of high commissioners has been announced, and Fiji will be offered 100 places within Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program. Fiji will also be incorporated into the New Colombo Plan, meaning that Australian students will soon study at the University of the South Pacific. Defence ties are also being re-established.

Fiji’s involvement in the regional architecture meanwhile remains unclear. Its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum (the region’s premier political body) in 2009 was lifted recently following elections in which the former head of the Fiji military (and 2006 coup leader) won office. But Fiji has refused to rejoin the Forum, stating that it will only consider doing so if Australia and New Zealand leave the body that they helped to establish. The announced review of the regional architecture is most likely a bid by Australia to appease the Fiji Government – although it is not at all clear that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will back down from their opposition to rejoining a Forum that includes Australia and New Zealand as members.

Any review of the regional architecture, of course, brings with it opportunities. The Pacific Institute of Public Policy has welcomed the initiative as a means to “effect the necessary reforms” that will “reforge the regional vision and establish the relevant architecture to secure it”. Such a position reflects a widespread view that regionalism has done little to improve the lot of Pacific island populations (a view that to a great extent is true, although not universally so). The Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Brett Mason, recently reiterated that point when he said about Pacific regionalism that “things can’t remain as they are.” If the review does generate a broad-based political mandate for enhancing regionalism, it would certainly be a win for all.

But we are sceptical that the review that has been announced will fulfil this purpose, for a number of reasons.

First, there is the issue of timing. In the last 10 years, there have been myriad reviews of regional organisations and plans/processes. These include the 2013 Independent Review of the Pacific Plan for Regional Integration and Cooperation (the ‘Pacific Plan); the 2012 reviews of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (discussed here); the 2007 Regional Integration Framework [pdf] (RIF) review, which led to the merger of a number of major regional agencies; and the 2005 review of the regional architecture commissioned by Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). Surely this is overkill? The purpose of regionalism cannot primarily be to review regionalism.

Of these review activities, the most recent and most significant was the 2013 Review of the Pacific Plan, undertaken by Sir Mekere Morauta and his team and captured in a report [pdf] released less than 12 months ago. That review included detailed analysis of what the regionalism project has been and could be in the future (including work we did assessing pooled service delivery in the region). Its key product, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism[pdf], was endorsed by leaders at the Palau meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The PIFS is currently implementing key activities arising from the 2013 Review of the Pacific Plan, including the rationalisation of regional meetings (a specific request from Pacific island leaders). Regional organisations such as the University of the South Pacific, SPC and the PIFS have only recently implemented recommendations from their comprehensive reviews, and in some cases, this process is ongoing. It comes as a surprise then that another review of the regional architecture should be announced.
It is unclear whether there is much appetite for another review in the region, with the implications of past reviews still being worked through and implemented by regional bodies and the Forum. Alf Simpson, former Director of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC – now subsumed within the SPC), has said in response to the announcement that:

Time after time they keep asking the same questions hoping for a different response. Even worse the focus on the organisations only results in minor efficiency gains and the question of effectiveness is never addressed.

Transform Aqorau, the CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement office, has labelled another review of the regional architecture as “ill advised, untimely and an overreaction.”
It is certainly significant that the announcement has been met with silence by most regional organisations (regional organisations, after all, would be unlikely to directly criticise the foreign ministers of Australia and Fiji). The one exception is the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, which has welcomed the initiative, although on the proviso that “the discussion comes up with some useful way forward”. Importantly, there has been no request for a review by the countries that have the greatest stake in regionalism: the smaller island states of the Pacific (a group that does not include the larger countries of Fiji and PNG, nor the developed economies of Australia and New Zealand).

This is cause for further concern. It is absurd that Australia and Fiji should bilaterally announce a review of the regional architecture with no consideration for the views of other Pacific island countries. After all, Fiji refuses to be a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, while Australia is not a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group or the Pacific Islands Development Forum. How can either country seek to review regional arrangements to which they are not party? The meeting in February will presumably include other Pacific island heads of government, but the fact remains that the need to hold a discussion was announced by Fiji and Australia without the involvement of other leaders.

The announcement may help to re-establish the bilateral relationship between Australia and Fiji, although there is no guarantee that it will succeed in bringing Fiji back into the Forum’s fold. But it is disappointing in terms of Australia’s engagement with the broader region. Whilst in opposition, Julie Bishop promised a better engagement with the region should her party come into government. What we have seen since last October is a selective approach to developing some bilateral relationships (most notably with PNG and Fiji) and a disregard for progressing regional relationships. Australia has been noticeable by its perceived absence in key forums where issues that matter to Pacific island countries (especially the smaller states) have been discussed. The continued inertia of the PACER Plus negotiations has arisen, at least in part, from the apparent inability of Australian (and New Zealand) officials to take the concerns of Pacific negotiators on board. And the Seasonal Workers’ Program remains a source of disappointment to many.

There are plenty of challenges ahead for the future of Pacific regionalism and visionary leadership is required if they are to be successfully navigated. A review of the regional architecture, announced by two countries less than 12 months after the completion of another review, is far from visionary.

Photo credit: Fiji Ministry of Information