Pacific Partners Outlook: Fiji’s New Forum Offers Challenges, Opportunities for Washington and its Partners

  • Volume IV | Issue 6 | July 3, 2014
    Jul 3, 2014

    Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama of Fiji opened the second annual Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in the capital of Suva on June 19 with a call for participants to find solutions “by Pacific islanders for Pacific Islanders, forged in conjunction with our development partners but with genuine consultation.” The message was clear—the PIDF is an alternative to the region’s traditional architecture, especially the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which has been dominated by Australia, New Zealand, and, to a lesser degree in recent years, the United States. The proper response from leaders in Canberra, Wellington, and Washington should not be to denigrate or ignore the new forum, but to address the perceived failings of the PIF.

    Fiji founded the PIDF last year in large part as a response to its continued suspension from the PIF due to the Bainimarama government’s 2009 refusal to return the country to democracy. The new forum, supported by no-strings-attached funding from China and Russia, was to be a venue for Pacific Island developing states to come together without what Bainimarama considered excessive moralizing from Australia and New Zealand. At the time, most Pacific Island states supported Fiji’s suspension and they still do, even as they cautiously participate in the PIDF.

    The absence of the second-most-populous Pacific Island developing nation, and the host of the PIF Secretariat, has undeniably weakened the forum in recent years. With Fiji slated to hold elections in September, the PIF heavy hitters must make every effort to bring Suva back into the fold. Bainimarama earlier this year declared that he has no intention of bringing Fiji back into the PIF, for reasons that seemed wholly based on hurt feelings. But assuming that the upcoming polls are at least free (the campaign period has already made clear that they will not be entirely fair), Canberra, Wellington, and Washington must continue to extend an olive branch to Bainimarama. He will win the September elections, so leaders must accept that they will need to engage with a nominally democratic Fiji with him at the helm.

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    The Month That Was

    • Abbott, Obama agree to closer defense cooperation
    • Obama, Key discuss Iraq, TPP during Oval Office meeting
    • Parties to Nauru Agreement raise fishing fees by 33 percent

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    Looking Ahead

    • Presentation of IEA gas market report findings
    • Discussion on New Zealand’s KiwiSaver Program
    • Annual CSIS South China Sea conference

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    Fiji’s New Forum Offers Challenges, Opportunities for Washington and its Partners

    By Gregory Poling (@GregPoling), Fellow, Pacific Partners Initiative (@PacPartnersDC), CSIS

    Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama of Fiji opened the second annual Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in the capital of Suva on June 19 with a call for participants to find solutions “by Pacific islanders for Pacific Islanders, forged in conjunction with our development partners but with genuine consultation.” The message was clear—the PIDF is an alternative to the region’s traditional architecture, especially the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which has been dominated by Australia, New Zealand, and, to a lesser degree in recent years, the United States. The proper response from leaders in Canberra, Wellington, and Washington should not be to denigrate or ignore the new forum, but to address the perceived failings of the PIF.

    Fiji founded the PIDF last year in large part as a response to its continued suspension from the PIF due to the Bainimarama government’s 2009 refusal to return the country to democracy. The new forum, supported by no-strings-attached funding from China and Russia, was to be a venue for Pacific Island developing states to come together without what Bainimarama considered excessive moralizing from Australia and New Zealand. At the time, most Pacific Island states supported Fiji’s suspension and they still do, even as they cautiously participate in the PIDF.

    The absence of the second-most-populous Pacific Island developing nation, and the host of the PIF Secretariat, has undeniably weakened the forum in recent years. With Fiji slated to hold elections in September, the PIF heavy hitters must make every effort to bring Suva back into the fold. Bainimarama earlier this year declared that he has no intention of bringing Fiji back into the PIF, for reasons that seemed wholly based on hurt feelings. But assuming that the upcoming polls are at least free (the campaign period has already made clear that they will not be entirely fair), Canberra, Wellington, and Washington must continue to extend an olive branch to Bainimarama. He will win the September elections, so leaders must accept that they will need to engage with a nominally democratic Fiji with him at the helm.

    The lesson of the PIDF’s rapid success is that not just Fiji must be brought back into the fold. The other nine Pacific Island leaders in attendance in Suva did not join the forum there because of Bainimarama’s feud with Australia and New Zealand. Rather, they did so because his call for a more responsive, effective, and equal Pacific architecture—one encompassing civil society as well as governments—rang true.

    The agenda at this year’s PIDF focused on green growth and mitigating the effects of climate change. Bainimarama lambasted the global community for ignoring the peril climate change poses to low-lying Pacific nations, and pointed the finger at Australia in particular. With the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott poised to repeal Australia’s forward-leaning carbon tax and hoping to roll back other parts of the previous government’s ambitious climate agenda, Bainimarama informed Canberra, “History will judge you harshly if you abandon us to our apparent fate of sinking below the waves.”

    This sentiment is widespread among Pacific leaders. It has been clear during year after year of failed international climate talks, and it has reached a fever pitch since last year’s PIF Leaders’ Meeting in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands. The simple fact is that climate change is the most important issue on the international agenda for most Pacific Island states—development, trade, health, and security issues all matter, but only rising sea levels represent an existential threat. And it is a threat that many Pacific leaders feel that the developed world, and especially their neighbors Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, have ignored.

    PIF leaders will next meet in Palau on July 29. They will do so in the shadow of a fairly successful PIDF—one in which guest of honor Indonesia, for example, pledged $20 million for development assistance in the Pacific. Climate change mitigation and promoting green growth will again top the PIF agenda, but the common perception among members will be that traditional PIF leader Australia is abandoning the fight against climate change. This offers an opportunity for Washington, which is not a member of the PIF but which in recent years has stepped up its participation as a dialogue partner.

    The biggest step that Washington could take to signal its commitment to the PIF as the preeminent regional architecture in Oceania would be to send Secretary of State John Kerry to attend, which would make him just the second U.S. secretary of state, after Hillary Clinton, to have done so. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel’s attendance last year was important but was not a replacement for the secretary of state, given that the Interior Department’s writ in the Pacific includes only three U.S. territories and three freely associated states.

    With or without Kerry, however, the U.S. delegation to this year’s PIF must come with concrete proposals for regional cooperation on climate change mitigation—and with substantial pledges of bilateral assistance to help low-lying Pacific Islands with mitigation efforts. The administration of President Barack Obama currently enjoys considerable credibility on the issue thanks to the announcement in early June of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at cutting U.S. power plant emissions by 30 percent starting in 2016. Secretary Kerry’s “Our Ocean” conference in June, during which President Obama announced a massive expansion of the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument marine reserve, also lent some critical mass to U.S. engagement in the region.

    The PIDF’s success has highlighted the need to reinvigorate the traditional architecture of the region unless Australia, New Zealand, and, by association, the United States want to find themselves increasingly sidelined. The new forum need not be seen as a threat, even if that is how founder Fiji intended it. It offers a new venue for cooperation and unlike the PIF brings in civil society. If Canberra, Wellington, and Washington commit to addressing the criticisms raised in the PIDF—that developed nations have taken a condescending approach in the PIF and are ignoring the existential threat of climate change—then the efforts of the two forums could become complementary. If not, they will remain antagonistic.

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    The Month That Was

    Australia

    Abbott, Obama agree to closer defense cooperation. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Tony Abbott met June 12 during the latter’s visit to Washington and agreed on additional force posture measures, including more frequent U.S. Navy ship visits to ports in Western Australia. These visits will enable the U.S. military to extend its reach in the Asia-Pacific region. The two leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and discussed the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where both countries fought a grueling counterinsurgency.

    High Court declares offshore asylum seeker detention constitutional. The Australian High Court on June 18 unanimously ruled that the government has the right to send asylum seekers to its detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The court found that Papua New Guinea is a valid processing country for those seeking political asylum. But it also ruled against Canberra’s attempt to place a cap on the number of refugee visas granted annually.

    Parliament set to repeal carbon tax with some conditions. The Australian House of Representatives on June 26 passed a bill to scrap the country’s carbon tax, with the Senate set to vote on repeal as early as July 7. Mining magnate Clive Palmer appeared to break a months-long deadlock over the repeal effort in the upper house when he announced June 25 that his Palmer United Party’s three senators-elect would support repeal. But Palmer said his support was conditional on the Abbott government’s separating the carbon tax repeal from its drive to scrap other parts of the previous government energy package, including the profitable Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

    Australia close to finalizing trade agreement with China. Australia is likely to conclude negotiations with China on a free trade agreement in 2014, according to a statement by Treasurer Joe Hockey and Trade Minister Andrew Robb following a June 24 meeting with Xu Shaoshi, the chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission. The two countries have been negotiating the agreement for nine years. Speculation is growing that the deal will be signed when Chinese president Xi Jinping visits Australia in November for the Group of 20 leaders meeting in Brisbane. Australia and China recently signed an investment framework agreement expected to grant Australian investors access to Chinese state-owned enterprises and increase Chinese investment in northern Australia.

    Australian among three journalists convicted by Egypt’s military government. An Egyptian court on June 23 sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists, including Australian Peter Greste, to seven or more years in prison on charges of defaming Egypt and supporting the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s military government alleged that Greste and his colleagues altered video clips to spread false news in order to boost international support for the brotherhood, which the government has designated a terrorist organization. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop decried the verdict and human rights groups called the trial a farce.

    Bishop warns that 150 Australians are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said June 19 that approximately 150 Australian citizens have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight on the side of extremist factions. That admission followed mounting evidence that one Australian, Khaled Sharrouf, had joined the Sunni-extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria after using his brother’s passport to flee Australia. Bishop warned that such jihadists could pose a security threat to Australia should they return.

    New Zealand

    Obama, Key discuss Iraq, TPP during Oval Office meeting. Prime Minister John Key offered his support for President Barack Obama’s response to the devolving situation in Iraq during a June 20 visit to the Oval Office. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to complete negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Key even suggesting that the agreement should be completed without Japan if Tokyo proves unwilling to compromise on agriculture. Key also met with Secretary of State John Kerry while in Washington and visited the National Security Agency.

    New Zealand fully participating in RIMPAC for first time in 30 years. The HMNZS Canterbury docked at the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on June 26 to take part in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises. It marked the first time in 30 years that a New Zealand ship docked at a U.S. base. The HMNZS Te Kaha and Endeavor took part in the 2012 RIMPAC, but had to dock at a commercial port. The 2014 exercises will run through August 1 and involve 22 nations, including Australia, Tonga, and, for the first time, China. A U.S. ban against New Zealand ship visits was imposed in 1986 after New Zealand barred port visits by ships that could be carrying nuclear weapons.

    Switch to satellite-based navigation could save New Zealand aviation industry billions. Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee on June 16 announced that New Zealand’s aviation industry would switch from using ground-based radar to satellite tracking. Wellington hopes the switch will save the nation’s aviation industry up to $1.7 billion by lowering capital spending and fuel and operating costs. The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, which is leading the project, acknowledged that more accurate satellite tracking would not necessarily be capable of finding aircraft that go missing, as Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 did over the Indian Ocean in March.

    Pacific Islands

    Parties to Nauru Agreement raise fishing fees by 33 percent. The fisheries ministers of the eight Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) nations agreed during a June 12–13 meeting in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, to increase the daily fee for foreign fleets to fish in PNA waters from $6,000 to $8,000 starting in 2015. The ministers also said they would reopen negotiations on an agreement reached with the United States in 2013 whereby the U.S. tuna industry increased its annual payments to PNA states from $21 million to $63 million. The eight PNA nations are the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

    Obama creates world’s largest marine sanctuary. President Barack Obama on June 17 announced plans to create the world’s largest marine reserve off-limits to commercial activities, including fishing and energy exploration. The plan would expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, established by then president George W. Bush in 2009 and encompassing areas south and west of Hawaii, from almost 87,000 square miles to over 780,000 square miles. Obama announced the plan in a video message to the “Our Ocean” conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. The plan will take effect after a public comment period during the summer of 2014.

    PIDF calls for more global action on climate change, assistance to Pacific. Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama opened the second annual Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in Suva on June 19 by accusing the international community of ignoring climate change at Pacific Islanders’ peril, naming Australia as particularly culpable. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the summit’s guest of honor and pledged $20 million in development assistance to Pacific Island nations. Fiji has spearheaded the establishment of the PIDF as an alternative to the annual Australia- and New Zealand-dominated Pacific Islands Forum.

    Court rules police can pursue arrest warrant against PNG prime minister. A Papua New Guinea (PNG) court on July 1 ruled that police can pursue an arrest warrant against Prime Minister Peter O’Neill on corruption charges. O’Neill on June 19 disbanded the national anticorruption agency that had the arrest warrant issued against him for allegedly authorizing fraudulent payments to a law firm. He also fired the attorney general and deputy police commissioner, and adjourned the parliament for two months.

    Politically active Fijian student’s scholarship reinstated after public outcry. Fiji’s Tertiary Scholarship and Loans Board on June 9 reinstated the scholarship of second-year University of the South Pacific student Tamanirarama Jone Seruiraduvatu after a wave of support for the 21-year-old on social media and in the international press. The board had informed Seruiraduvatu on May 21 that his scholarship had been terminated and he would have to pay back the money given to him in his first year of college because he had participated in the campaign of an opposition candidate running in Fiji’s September national elections.

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    Looking Ahead

    Presentation of IEA gas market report findings. The CSIS Energy and National Security Program will host the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Anne-Sophie Corbreau on July 8 for a presentation of the IEA’s Medium-Term Gas Market Report. Corbreau will highlight the annual report’s key findings, including a projection that global demand for natural gas will rise 2.2 percent per year. The event will take place from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at CSIS, 1616 Rhode Island Ave., NW. To register, please email energy@csis.org.

    Discussion on New Zealand’s KiwiSaver Program. The Brookings Institution will host a discussion July 8 on New Zealand’s KiwiSaver Program. New Zealand’s former retirement commissioner, Diana Crossan, will discuss the voluntary long-term savings program’s impact on retirement security and financial literacy. Brookings’ Retirement Security Project deputy directors Ben Harris and David John will reflect on the role such a program might play in the United States. The event will be held from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the headquarters of the American Association of Retired Persons, 601 E St., NW. Please email international@aarp.org to RSVP.

    Annual CSIS South China Sea conference. The CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies will hold its fourth annual South China Sea conference on July 10–11. The conference will feature keynote remarks by Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Fuchs, and top political, security, and legal experts from nine countries including Australia. The conference will take place in the CSIS Second Floor Conference Room, 1616 Rhode Island Ave., NW. Please click here for more information and to register.

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