Australia and New Zealand have never found it easy to corral Pacific-island leaders into supporting their initiatives. It is getting harder….[The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) was held in September 2015]. It was attended by both Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, and New Zealand’s, John Key. They were probably relieved not to be joined by Frank Bainimarama, the former military commander who led a coup in Fiji in 2006. Fiji was suspended from the forum in 2009, but readmitted after Mr Bainimarama won a general elections in 2014. Some of his officials attended, but he himself is boycotting PIF meetings until the forum is reformed—and Australia and New Zealand are expelled. Other Pacific nations are less strident. But they too want to reshape the PIF’s agenda, particularly on climate change.
Mr Bainimarama has launched a rival group, the Pacific Island Development Forum, which held its third annual meeting in Fiji from September 2nd to 4th, 2015. The resultant communiqué endorsed the goal of keeping global average temperatures no more than 1.5˚Celsius above pre-industrial levels (the existing goal agreed among developed countries is 2˚). It is part of a strategy of “deep decarbonisation” that Mr Bainimarama hopes to take to the UN’s climate-change conference to be held in Paris in December. Tony De Brum, the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister, says Australia’s proposed 26-28% cut in emissions from 2005 levels is far too low to stop the atoll states from disappearing beneath the waves. He wants much bolder targets. Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, said that island leaders might ask Australia to leave the PIF; or they might stage a walkout if it refuses to sign up to the 1.5˚ target.
Australia’s moral authority in the region has been dented. It has cut its foreign-aid budget and disbanded its specialised aid agency, AusAID, with greater aid emphasis now on Australia’s commercial interests. And the shunting of Australia’s unwanted refugees to “Offshore Processing Centres” on Nauru and in PNG has looked mean-minded, despite sweeteners such as refurbished hospitals, roads and local jobs for the host countries.
On tiny Nauru, with a population of only 10,000, the refugee centres have supplanted phosphates as the biggest source of earnings. Electoral self-interest means no politician dares oppose the centres. Nauru’s politics are troubled. An authoritarian government, led by Baron Waqa, has removed most opposition MPs from parliament. One MP, Roland Kun, has had his passport seized and been prevented from rejoining his family in New Zealand. The Australian government has refrained from criticising its island ally. But, in a rare Pacific-policy split with Australia, New Zealand suspended its aid to Nauru’s judicial sector in early September 2015.
Unlike Nauru, Papua New Guinea, which, with 7.2m people is the largest Pacific Island state, has other sources of foreign exchange, including a $19 billion ExxonMobil liquefied-natural-gas project. But PNG’s politicians are more likely to turn on the unpopular detention centre on Manus island. Relations with Australia are often frosty. In July 2015 the prime minister, Peter O’Neill, announced a ban on foreign (mostly Australian) consultants. Then PNG stopped Australian vegetable imports.
New donors, such as Indonesia and, most noticeably, China, are offering money to the island states. So island leaders have greater leeway to pursue independent foreign policies.
Excerpts from The Pacific Islands Forum: Australasia feels the heat, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 39.