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

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.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative