Six Pacific Developments to Watch in 2013

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Rarotonga. Courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand's Flickr photostream.
    Jan 15, 2013

    The year ahead will see a number of important issues crop up in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. But six in particular will be worth watching.

    1. Elections in Australia

      Australia must hold national elections by November 30 at the latest. What the outcome will be remains unclear. Over the last year, public support for the Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has waxed and waned. The government’s unpopular carbon tax, its failure to achieve a promised budget surplus, and accusations that Speaker of the House Peter Slipper harassed a staffer are just the most prominent recent difficulties to tarnish the government’s popularity.

      Nevertheless, polls show that opposition leader Tony Abbott remains significantly less popular than Gillard. This is surprising considering that Gillard entered office deeply unpopular after ousting her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. But the public has warmed toGillard over the course of her administration and seems now to find her more likeable than the conservative and sometimes clumsy Abbott.

      No matter how the elections turn out, Australia’s foreign and defense policy will likely remain stable. The new leader can be expected to maintain Australia’s traditionally close relationship with the United States and to seek good relations with Indonesia, China, and India. Gillard’s opponents complain about defense spending cuts during her administration, but it remains unclear whether this trend would be reversed under an Abbott government.

    2. The 2013 Australian Defense White Paper

      Australia is slated to release its 2013 Defense White Paper in mid-year. Already, a version leaked to an Australian newspaper suggests that the country’s defense posture will undergo a strategic shift—winding down its military presence abroad and refocusing attention on its immediate neighborhood, especially the South Pacific. The draft White Paper reportedly aspires to increase defense spending from 1.56 percent of GDP to 2 percent.

      The release of the final version will be an important indicator of how Australia perceives the future of the Asia Pacific and its place within it, particularly in light of the rise of China and India.

    3. New Zealand’s comfort with Chinese investment Observers should keep an eye on New Zealand’s ongoing debate about foreign investment, especially investment from China. Shanghai Pengxin Group met stiff opposition from the New Zealand public when it attempted in 2012 to purchase 16 North Island dairy farms. A group of local farming interests led the opposition to the purchase, questioning whether the Overseas Investment Office had properly vetted the Chinese company’s business acumen because it had never run a dairy farm.

      A court October 17 ruled in Shanghai Pengxin’s favor and allowed the purchase to go ahead. However, the case sparked a nationalist backlash at odds with New Zealand’s long-standing reputation as having one of the world’s most foreign-friendly investment environments. Opponents argue that farmland, a critical part of the country’s economy, should not fall into foreign hands. The backlash forced the government to slow the liberalization of foreign investment rules and subject potential investors to stricter review. New Zealand will spend 2013 with this contradiction—an official desire to attract investment from a booming Asia bumping against public expressions of growing xenophobia.

    4. Fiji’s new constitution

      Fiji’s government is slated to approve a long-awaited constitution as early as March. The Constitution Commission handed its final draft to President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau December 21, but the president and Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama rejected it on January 10 and ordered a new draft completed by the end of the month. Highlights of a leaked version of the rejected draft include guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, separation of powers, a pledge to eradicate poverty, environmental protection, a process for land dispute resolution, and the promotion of “Fijian identity” to eradicate ethnic tension.

      But how democratic will the new version of the constitution be? Despite the collaborative process through which the latest draft was created, the government of Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama attempted to keep it under lock and key. Police destroyed all known hard copies of the leaked draft constitution, fueling concerns about transparency and government intentions. How much, if any, of the Constitution Commission’s work makes it into the next version will prove crucial in determining its quality.

      Fiji is already breaking out of its six-year isolation by engaging other regional actors, but it will be important to see whether the new constitution proves democratic enough for Australia and New Zealand to reengage.

    5. U.S. interest in the Pacific

      Hillary Clinton in 2012 became the first U.S. secretary of state to attend the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), pledging that the United States would not forget the Pacific during the “Pacific Century.” However, it remains to be seen whether this level of engagement will continue under the new secretary of state.

      The level of the official delegation sent to the 2013 PIF in the Marshall Islands will serve as an important indicator of U.S. interest. Another appearance by the secretary of state is unlikely, but how far down the ladder the State Department decides to dig for a representative will send a clear message to the Pacific Islands. The Marshall Islands are subject to a Compact of Free Association with the United States, offering an additional incentive for U.S. officials to show up and support the chairmanship of a close partner.

      Another important indicator for future engagement will be the conclusion of a renegotiated South Pacific Tuna Treaty that offers the Pacific Islands an aid package in return for fishery access. Although a compromise was announced by the United States in July 2012, internal politics within the U.S. negotiating partner, the Forum Fisheries Agency, caused the deal to fall apart. The next round of negotiations will be held in February in New Zealand. If a compromise is found in 2013, it will demonstrate that the United States recognizes the importance of sustainable use of fisheries in engaging the Pacific Islands.

    6. China’s growing Pacific presence

      China is engaging the Pacific Islands like never before and likely surpassed Australia as the largest aid donor to Oceania in 2012. China’s engagement in the Pacific previously focused on securing diplomatic recognition in the United Nations (the Pacific Islands include some of the last countries to recognize Taiwan rather than China), but other rationales have recently come into play. China’s resource imperative is driving it to seek access to the Pacific Islands’ mineral and fishery resources, often by offering soft loans and unconditional grants and by building infrastructure.

      This dynamic has been encouraged by the Pacific Islands, which welcome a new powerful banker in regional politics. They are now leveraging Chinese aid as a possible alternative to the development strategy favored by Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, which only grant money with conditions attached.

    Developments over the next year in these six areas will provide important bellwethers for the future of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands during the “Pacific Century.” The United States will do itself and its Asia Pacific strategy a disservice by overlooking them.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the January 10, 2013, issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

    Elke Larsen is the research assistant for the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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