Uncertain outlook for Pacific Leaders Meeting
Uncertain outlook for next months Pacific Leaders Meeting.
The Lowy Institute for International Policy says there is a sense of anticipation and uncertainty surrounding next month's Pacific Leaders Meeting in Australia.
The special meeting which should not be confused with the Pacific Forum Leaders meeting is being hosted by Australia as a direct result of calls by Fiji for a review of the regional architecture before it reengages with the forum.
The Director of Lowy's Melanesia program, Jenny Hayward Jones, spoke with Koroi Hawkins about some of the issues surrounding the meeting.
JENNY HAYWARD JONES: I believe this push is from Fiji, and of course Fiji until recently has been suspended from the Forum. Following their elections, they were re-admitted but they haven't yet re-engaged in Forum meetings and of course we are yet to see Forum leaders meet in itself, which has the Prime Minister of Fiji attending. So I do believe it is a push from Fiji but obviously the region needs to respond to that.
KOROI HAWKINS: Is it a legitimate push do you think, or is it just Fiji sort of stretching its muscles, coming back into democratic rule and sort of saying we're here, we're a big player in the region?
JHJ: Well I think it is worth leaders having a good look at whether the region's architecture is working for them. I don't think that hurts, particularly after the review to have a good think about whether it serves the interest of all countries. But I do think Fiji is leading this because I think in the time they were away from the Forum, they pursued some other international interests, really enhanced their international status and increased their diplomatic footprint all over the world. And they obviously have a claim or an interest in asserting themselves regionally again and we've heard of course the Fiji Foreign Minister say Fiji won't come back to the Forum unless Australia and New Zealand leave. Now I understand he hasn't said that formally to the Australian government, he has only said it to the media. But certainly those sort of concerns need to be aired and addressed.
KH: The Forum itself, isn't it mostly funded by Australia and New Zealand, and what's its actual function in the region?
JHJ: Well I am not sure of the exact percentages but certainly a good percentage. I wouldn't want to get it wrong. But I know Australia and New Zealand are certainly very strong financial backers of the Forum. And this is where Fiji has identified a problem. They believe it's not fair to have effectively donors to the Forum be members of the Forum. But the problem here is Australia and New Zealand were founding members of the Forum so it's a bit difficult now to turn around to them, even though they are financial backers, and say we don't want you anymore. And I understand that Fiji has proposed that membership be open to others, other external partners, other donors. Which I don't think is going to be very popular with the region because it is afterall a regional organisation, so furthering membership to countries outside the region would be unusual for a regional organisation.
In terms of what the Forum's role is, I mean the Forum is meant to serve every country in the region and to carry out the instructions of leaders that they agree to every year, and to advance issues like regional security, health issues, environmental issues, and represent and help the region's interests internationally settling on issues like climate change, nuclear legacy issues. So there are a number of roles the Forum performs that I think the region would struggle to do without. So I think fundamentally changing the Forum is going to be quite difficult.
KH: It would be quite weird holding the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Moscow or New York. But what about the effectiveness of the Forum - has it achieved these things that it set out to do? Is that also something that's going to be looked at do you think?
JHJ: Well I think there have been a lot of questions around the effectiveness of the Forum and that's one of the reasons. There's certainly doubts around its long-term effectiveness, led to the review we saw publish its recommendations last year. So I think certainly the Forum could do with improving its performance, its responsiveness to leaders, its flexibility. I guess it is a big organisation and I think it struggles to be nimble enough on the ground to respond to change.
But I think it is also tough, because leaders really only see each other formally once a year. And when they go back it is often difficult to keep up with all those initiatives that they have agreed to, I mean, we see a long-form communiqué every year with lots of instructions with how initiatives are going to be carried forward, and I think it is very difficult for the Forum Secretariat to carry out all of those with the involvement with every country, and the consistent input from every country. And I think many Pacific Island countries struggle to come up with regional initiatives because they are small and lack capacity to really have a decent input.
KH: Summing up a month out from this meeting, what are you seeing, is there anything we're already seeing in the media already in the build up, what is Australia saying, what is New Zealand saying?
JHJ: To be honest with you, I haven't seen a lot in the media. I have spoken to some contacts in the Australian government, I know a very small amount about what's going to happen. I understand it's meant to be a meeting of both leaders and foreign ministers to the region. I have no idea however how many are coming, whether we are going to see Fiji and the PNG Prime Minister, of course PNG will be hosting the PIF this year and it also has strong claims to regional leadership, and it's interest are quite often divergent with those of Fiji. So I think it will be very interesting to see what the attendance rate is, how many of the leaders will come, and what kind of agenda they are going to come with.
I think you pointed out earlier that we are seeing disputes between Fiji and Solomon Islands over aviation, PNG and Fiji are in dispute over a number of issues, so I think it is going to be interesting if all those leaders come together and can indeed agree on the same agenda, but it is a discussion that needs to happen. And I think Fiji in particular needs to air with the other leaders what it wants from the Forum, what it wants from regional architecture, and I think it would be interesting for Australia and others to hear from the region on what they want. I don't think Fiji can claim to have the whole region behind it on its desire to keep Australia and New Zealand out, so I don't think we will see ay big outcomes in that area. But it will be interesting to see how much compromise goes on at this meeting next month.
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