The Pacific Islands Development Forum: Keep Calm and Carry On
August 29, 2013
Fiji played host to the inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) on August 5-7. The new institution bills itself as a venue to boost collaboration on green development and climate mitigation among the nations most affected by rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather. But some commentators, especially in Australia and New Zealand, view it as something else?an attempt to undermine the well-established Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which holds its next leaders? meeting in the Marshall Islands on September 3-6.
The PIDF's membership is explicitly closed to developed nations. The 42-year-old PIF, on the other hand, has long been dominated by Australia and often includes high-level representation from heavyweight observers like China and the United States. Fiji was suspended from the PIF in 2009 after failing to hold democratic elections, and its leaders clearly carry a chip on their shoulder over that decision.
Fiji's interim prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has fueled speculation that the PIDF is an intentional effort to lessen the role of the traditional donor nations, especially Australia, in Pacific Island multilateralism. He has said that the PIF is flawed because it only includes governments at the table and is too dominated by a few, in veiled references to Australia and New Zealand. The first PIDF gathering, in contrast, brought civil society, academia, business, and government representatives together for meetings.
Whatever the goal of the PIDF was and will be, the story of the inaugural session became one of competing influences, which Fiji clearly lost. Only 14 of the 23 Pacific nations invited sent representatives, and only three leaders joined Bainimarama for the summit: Kiribati president Anote Tong, Solomon Islands prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo, and Timor-Leste prime minister Xanana Gusmão. The governments of Australia and New Zealand reportedly pressured Gusmão and others not to attend, and their displeasure was certainly clear to the invited nations, especially in Polynesia, that chose not to send any representation at all.
The PIDF is not and is unlikely to become a competitor to the PIF. Despite apparent funding from China, Russia, and some Arab states, the PIDF is in no position to unseat its regional competitor as the coordinating hub for Pacific development. China, the bogeyman behind many of the PIDF conspiracy theories, contributed about $850 million to the eight Pacific Island nations that officially recognize it from 2006 to 2011. Australia contributed more than that?over $1.2 billion?in 2011 alone.
In contrast to the poor attendance at the PIDF, the PIF sees nearly every independent head of state in the Pacific Islands show up annually. It also sees increasingly high-level delegations from observer countries, including the largest-ever U.S. delegation led by then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year. This year's PIF will feature a U.S. delegation led by a principal deputy assistant secretary and a deputy assistant secretary of state. The inaugural PIDF, meanwhile, saw a grand total of 25 observers from nonmember countries.
So relax. The PIDF is not a threat to the PIF, nor is there any indication it will be.
But the endgame cannot be to see the PIDF collapse. That is an unlikely prospect. And just as importantly, it would make the Pacific donor nations, including the United States, look just the way Bainimarama characterizes them-like bullies. Those Pacific Island leaders most critical of Bainimarama, like Samoa prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele, will stay away from the new institution for the time being. But most will seek to engage both forums. This is precisely what Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill said his country will do, pointing out that as long as the PIDF does not attempt to mimic the role of the PIF, there is no reason to snub it.
The real message the traditional donor nations in the Pacific?Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States-should take away from the PIDF is the weaknesses it highlights in the PIF. The new forum might have been promoted by Bainimarama as a way to stick it to Australia and New Zealand, but that was not why 14 Pacific Island nations sent representatives or why more are likely to in the coming years. They did so because the PIDF offered something they feel is missing in the region's architecture.
Bainimarama's insistence that the PIF is too heavily weighted toward the leaders? meetings resonates with his counterparts in the region. As long as heads of state and cabinet ministers are in attendance, meetings with nongovernmental organizations, academics, and businesspeople will be relegated to the sidelines. This presents a hole that the PIDF can fill. Organizations on the ground in the Pacific Islands offer valuable input for leaders deciding how and where to support development. As long as the PIDF is going to stick around, and it will, the traditional donors would be better served by supporting the forum and using the discussions it engenders to inform their Pacific strategy.
Bainimarama also played on the region's general disappointment with the failure of donor nations, which happen to be the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to grapple with climate change. This is why the PIDF's mission is explicitly to move forward the agenda of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, called Rio+20. The Pacific Islands had high hopes for that historic conference and for the most part left it feeling betrayed by the developed world.
Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other donors have been boosting their aid to the Pacific in recent years. This was exemplified by the development projects announced by the United States at the 2011 PIF. But assistance for climate change mitigation remains woefully inadequate. The Pacific Island countries are among the most susceptible to climate change, the least responsible for it, and the least able to manage it alone.
Rising sea levels and increasingly violent weather patterns are an existential threat to the Pacific Islands. If donor nations want to protect the PIF from subversion by other bodies like the PIDF, their best strategy is to use the older forum as a venue to double-down on coordinated responses to climate change. The upcoming PIF in the Marshall Islands offers the ideal chance; its official theme will be "Marshall-ing the Pacific Response to the Climate Challenge."
(This Commentary originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Gregory Poling is a research associate with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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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