Fiji’s capital Suva is turning into Vienna in the 1930s, when ‘diplomats’ from around the world spied on each other and sent cables home about who was sleeping with whom. Meanwhile, across the border, the war machine was roaring into life.
It was quite a rodeo at the first in-person meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) since the start of the Covid lockdowns. Held last week in Fiji, the annual gathering was anything but boring.
Just before it started, two countries (Kiribati and Marshall Islands) formally announced they were no longer members.
Then USVice-President Kamala Harris gave a virtual address announcing, among other things, two new embassies for the region (conditions apply) and, yes, a heavy US policy emphasis on the PIF.
A couple of Chinese defence attachés, who snuck into the media section to watch Harris’ address, were booted out at the behest of a Fijian journalist applying reciprocity after Fijian journalists were stifled during Wang Yi’s recent trip.
I’ll get back to the meeting soon but, first, it’s long past time to make something really, really clear.
In spite of all the emphasis placed on the PIF from Washington, Canberra and Wellington as the “pillar” of Pacific regionalism, the PIF is neither the most inclusive nor effective regional organization. Far from it.
WHO ACTUALLY GETS WORK DONE IN THE PACIFIC?
Let me introduce you to some others. First up, the Pacific Community.
Now that the PIF has lost two Pacific Island Country (PIC) members, it consists of 14 PICs, plus Australia and New Zealand.
The Pacific Community consists of 22 PICs plus Australia, New Zealand, France, United Kingdom and United States. Some of the PICs that are in the Pacific Community but not in the PIF are part of the United States, including American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).
Let that sink in. Washington is talking about major backing for the PIF, when it isn’t even a member. Meanwhile, nearby, there is another regional organization where it is a member—as are Guam and CNMI, which are US territories with US citizens. And American Samoa. America is even in the name.
I can hear you saying, “yes, but does the Pacific Community do anything useful?” Good question.
I could, of course, counter with “does the PIF do anything useful?” And I’ll get to that. But first, more about the Pacific Community.
It was founded after World War II, in 1947, by the then major powers in the region: United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, and Netherlands. It moved to its first permanent headquarters in 1949. Those headquarters were in Noumea, New Caledonia, in the former US Headquarters South Pacific Base Command—the base built and used by US forces during WWII.
The Netherlands withdrew from the Pacific Community in 1962 and, as the countries of the Pacific gained independence or autonomy, they joined as individual members.
What does it do? It does the nitty gritty practical work essential for human security. As they say it is “the principal scientific and technical organisation in the Pacific region”. Explaining that, “We are renowned for knowledge and innovation… We have some 200 staff at our headquarters… It is the base for several divisions and programmes, namely: Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability Programme; Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems Division; Public Health Division; and Statistics for Development Division.”
An example of their work: “Our facilities include a laboratory where our scientists examine specimens of tuna and other fish species, and store them for reference by scientists around the world.”
Not as sexy as the PIF’s grand press releases about the Blue Pacific, but much more practical for the governments of the region looking to develop their fisheries based on sound science.
And the Pacific Community is not the only regional organization quietly getting on with the work needed by the region. If you care about environmental security, as the US says it does, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) has 21 PICs members (seven more than the PIF) and around 150 staff, including some of the region’s best scientists.
If you want to reach all the Pacific Islands, and work on scientific and practical research and solutions for some of the region’s critical challenges, these are the organizations where you’ll find the experts who can get the job done.
WHAT DOES THE PIF ACTUALLY DO?
Which brings us back to the Pacific Island Forum. It says it is “the region’s premier political and economic policy organisation”. Ok. So, what does it do, other than policy papers?
There have been at least four major crises with political and economic implications in the region in the last 2-3 years. Let’s see how the PIF helped.
*Covid: There were webinars, a taskforce, some press releases, and so forth but, if you look at the situation on the ground in each country, it is hard to discern a major role played by the PIF.
Countries like Palau and the Marshall Islands got vaccines from the United States. Solomon Islands languished until a major outbreak coincided with geopolitical upheaval moving it to the top of the priority list. And then it was primarily Australia and India that stepped in.
* Volcanic eruption in Tonga: Largely “thoughts and prayers” from the PIF, with most of the rescue and recovery done by Tongans themselves, with support from individual nations.
*University of the South Pacific: This one is a bit complicated, but there have been severe disruptions in the governance of the University of the South Pacific, a key regional tertiary institution. Leadership from Samoa did much more than the PIF.
* China-Solomon Islands Security Deal: There was “concern” from the PIF but not much more. And this was an area where the PIF could have really made a difference in safeguarding democracy and economic integrity in the region.
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is deeply unpopular at home, in part because of PRC-linked corruption, and has said he wants to postpone the scheduled 2023 elections. He has recently taken delivery of substantial Chinese police equipment (backed by Chinese “police trainers”), including drones. It seems likely he is preparing to do a “Hong Kong” on his own people.
The excuse he’s giving to postpone elections is Solomons is hosting the Pacific Games in 2023 and the country doesn’t have enough money for both the Games and an election.
The PIF could have either helped find funding for the elections or made a recommendation that the Games be postponed (or boycotted) so that they couldn’t be used as an excuse to deprive the people of the Solomons of their democratic rights.
Instead, at the PIF meeting, the Australian Prime Minister hugged Sogavare. Imagine the message that sends to the people of Solomons concerned about democracy.
* Fifth one: Oh, and there has been a fifth regional crisis, the PIF itself. Australia and New Zealand-linked shenanigans over the election of the Secretary General exacerbated decades of marginalization of the five countries of the Micronesian region, fracturing the PIF.
Of those five countries, two countries are officially no longer members of the PIF, and the leader of a third didn’t attend the meeting. The leaders of the two others (Palau and FSM) came to the PIF meeting, but likely more because they’ve both taken very courageous stands against Chinese expansionism and got the message that, if they wanted backing, they better show up. This is not a viable way forward.
At the same time, when stands are taken by PIF leadership, they may not be what they seem. A major one is a “nuclear-free Pacific”. This is something Beijing has also been pushing—perhaps because it knows it is a political weapon to use against the US that is unlikely to affect the real expansionist military power in the region, China.
Speaking of which, China seems fine with the PIF. In its “Five Year Plan” for the Pacific Islands, Beijing pledges: “China will provide 1.08 million USD grants to the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) in 2022, and will continue to provide aid according to PIF’s actual needs in the future.”
China is a “Dialogue Partner” of the PIF, along with the United States. However, unlike the United States, it’s not a member of the Pacific Community. Just saying.
WASHINGTON (HEART) PIF
This is why it is a bit confusing that the US is throwing so many eggs into the PIF’s weak and leaky basket.
For example, the White House’s announcements that it was to “Appoint the First-Ever US Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.” Not sure why this couldn’t be done by someone (or a team) who could also liaise with Pacific Community, SPREP and other important regional/multilateral organizations, aiding coordination.
The region urgently needs practical solutions to real world problems so countries aren’t destabilized and become easier prey for Beijing. That means understanding the operating environments of every country individually, and then working together to get things (not policy papers) done. And the US already has unique bilateral relationships in the region (especially with the Freely Associated States) and is a member of organisations that work, structurally and literally. Seems that should be a focus.
The stronger a country is, the less likely it is to turn to Beijing. The PIF seems to want to siphon off sovereignty, rather than reinforce it. The Pacific Community and SPREP (and others) want to give the countries the tools they need to strengthen themselves.
The PIF meeting last week was a real rodeo but the region doesn’t have time to indulge in theatrics. Sure, it’s nice for diplomats to hang out at the resorts in Fiji and write reports from the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms. But out there, in the rest of the Pacific, democracy is being stolen, economies are being destroyed and people are getting desperate.
Fiji’s capital Suva is turning into Vienna in the 1930s, when “diplomats” from around the world spied on each other at gilded cafes and sent cables home about who was sleeping with whom. Meanwhile, across the border, the war machine was roaring into life.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.