In the last few years, the leaders of the Pacific islands came up with the idea of calling their region Blue Pacific. The point? To emphasise that they have joint custody of “the world’s biggest oceanic continent”.
In the last few days, Blue Pacific has collapsed in a Pacific blue. The overarching organisation for the 18 nations, the Pacific Islands Forum, has splintered in acrimony. One member has quit and others are considering following.
In the middle of a pandemic, with the Pacific islands’ economies in distress, oceans rising and China probing for political opportunity, it’s the worst possible moment for the forum to go into “existential crisis” as the Australian National University’s Stephen Howes calls it.
Australia is one of the 18 members. It’s also the dominant resident power in the region. Together the forum nations control an expanse of ocean that – including members’ exclusive economic zones – covers 10 per cent of the Earth’s total ocean area.
There are questions about whether Canberra contributed to the break-up. It certainly failed to manage the crisis. Has Scott Morrison’s policy of Pacific Step-Up stumbled into Pacific Stuff-Up?
Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, says she’s attempting to orchestrate a make-up after the event. “Unity,” she told reporters on Monday, even as a group of five smaller countries met to reconsider membership, “is very, very important in the Pacific right now.”
The Pacific is a critical political and strategic zone for Australia, as Japan’s advances in World War II demonstrated starkly. Yet it only gets serious attention in Canberra when a crisis erupts.
Recent history shows, rather than tend to problems developing in, for instance, the Solomon Islands or Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville, Australia has rushed in troops when difficulty descends into disaster.
It’s disgraceful that Australia only decided to help build a national electricity grid in its former colony of Papua New Guinea in 2018. We were happy to leave 87 per cent of the PNG people in the dark ages for half a century until Beijing turned up with a fat chequebook.
The island states of the Pacific Islands Forum have made an effort to take the initiative rather than waiting for Canberra.
It typically doesn’t get a lot of media attention but the PIF has some serious achievements to its credit. By unifying the islands’ voices, it has been important in lobbying for global attention to climate change.
With some of the world’s lowest-lying islands, it’s especially urgent for Pacific states to slow the rising of the oceans. The World Risk Index lists Vanuatu as the most vulnerable of all nations to climate change and natural disaster, and Tonga is ranked third. All up, the index lists five Pacific island states among the top 20 most vulnerable.
And the forum, unintimidated by Australia’s size, has acted as Canberra’s conscience on climate change, routinely giving federal governments uncomfortable public reminders of the urgency of the problem.
It’s also been instrumental to the region’s success in coping with COVID-19. The Pacific islands were some of the places worst ravaged by the Spanish Flu a century ago.
Haunted by the ghosts of the one-third of its population killed in the last great pandemic, Samoa immediately shut its borders to COVID-19. As a result, Samoa has recorded zero deaths. Others did the same with the same result – as of Sunday, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Solomons, Marshall Islands and Wallis and Futuna also had zero COVID-19 deaths. Fiji has reported two and PNG nine.
But to preserve life, the island states cut off their economic lifelines. Most of them had access to essential supplies carried aboard tourist planes. When the planes stopped, so did the supplies. The PIF stepped up by co-ordinating a “humanitarian pathway” that has allowed vital deliveries of food, medicine and other goods.
Scott Morrison gets credit for conceiving Australia’s Pacific Step-Up. This policy has increased the flow of vital aid and attention to the Pacific states. When the pandemic struck, the Morrison government immediately offered more aid and also help with vaccinations. Australia also created a “humanitarian corridor” to keep Australian supplies flowing to the region. These policies have been successful and valued.
So what went so badly wrong last week? The bust-up was over the PIF leaders’ decision on replacing the forum’s secretary-general. As well as Australia and New Zealand, the PIF consists of three sub-groups: Micronesia in the north, Polynesia in the south, Melanesia in the south-west.
One group said it was its turn to nominate the secretary-general. The Micronesians – Nauru, Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia – pointed out that the other groups have had two turns at choosing the chief, while Micronesia has had only one.
Critically, the Micronesians said that there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” to rotate nomination between the three groups. Either way, they argued, it was Micronesia’s turn. They put up a Marshall Islands diplomat as their man. And last October one Micronesian member, Palau, warned that it would quit the group if they were overlooked.
By a vote of nine to eight, they lost. The Polynesian candidate, Cook Islands’ former PM Henry Puna, won. It was taken as the South Pacific insulting the north. Palau immediately announced it would leave the forum and the other Micronesian states are considering whether to follow.
The vote was secret but the losing candidate said that Australia and New Zealand had voted against him. Australian officials stayed mum. Professor Howes, head of ANU’s Development Policy Centre, said that Australia and NZ certainly failed to prevent the rupture and may have contributed to the problem.
“If you care about the forum, you had to vote for the Micronesia candidate,” he says. “He seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Australia must have known how strongly the Micronesians felt about this. There’s the question of who Australia voted for, and why.”
And the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings says that it newly exposes the region’s fragility: “I think it’s looking pretty bad. The Pacific Step-Up is not enough. The government should stop congratulating itself and put together a Pacific Step-Up Mark II. Leadership costs money. The split in the PIF doesn’t bode well for the region’s ability to operate as a coherent entity.”
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.