Commentators continue to question the relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum in a shifting geopolitical landscape and in light of a critical independent review. This year’s event in Rarotonga demonstrated that the Forum remains a valuable meeting place, albeit one with an increasing focus on bilateral side discussions and the international Post Forum Dialogue held after the main event. The review, which was commissioned by leaders at the 2011 meeting, identified a number of organisational and management reforms necessary to tackle the challenges that the Forum Secretariat faces servicing its members. The primary concerns relate to the lack of ownership by island states and their engagement with the secretariat. Leaders did not tackle some of the tough decisions that need to be made, instead deferring action pending another review of the Pacific Plan, which is to be led by Sir Mekere Morauta of Papua New Guinea.
This year’s Forum will be remembered as the one which highlighted the growing American and Chinese presence, with Hilary Clinton declaring ‘the Pacific is big enough for everyone’ as she outlined US re-engagement in the region. The Economist newspaper has questioned the re-found competition for influence in the region, suggesting America’s renewed interest ‘has brought the Pacific islands little of substance’.
As the US and Australia continue to call for greater transparency of Chinese aid, in a first in the region New Zealand has partnered with China to deliver a water project in Cook Islands.
Rebranding ‘small island states’
Forum host Cook Islands PM Henry Puna sought to rebrand the Pacific identity as ‘large ocean’ rather than ‘small island’ states. With a focus on sustainable marine resource management, including fisheries and seabed minerals, there was a significant announcement of new marine parks in Cook Islands and New Caledonia. Commercial activities will be allowed in these parks under the proviso that resource extraction is carried out sustainably. New Zealand, also, committed NZ$50 million to monitoring fisheries throughout the region and improving the management of tuna.
Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Tokelau also signed agreements on maritime boundaries. Maritime agreements, which have previously been raised as a priority issue, should improve resource management and protect the statehood and maritime zones for countries facing inundation from sea level rise.
Another considerable announcement from the Forum was the AUD$330 million gender equality package by Australian PM Julia Gillard, aimed at improving representation of women in parliaments across the Pacific, in light of the region having the lowest levels of women’s representation in the world. The US and New Zealand backed the announcement, highlighting the need for more women in parliament, better maternal health care and campaigns against domestic violence.
Forum leaders again raised the challenge that Pacific island countries face in accessing the ‘new and additional’ climate change financing pledged by the international community since the 2009 Copenhagen summit, but welcomed news of a fresh commitment of AUD$58 million from Australia over four years.
The US also announced US$32 million in programme funding as a part of the Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative, a new US assistance framework. These programs will address regional priorities, such as sustainable economic development that protects biodiversity.
As nuclear test survivor and international advocate, Lijon Eknilang, passed away in Majuro, Pacific leaders, particularly from Micronesia, called on Washington to remove the continued presence of radioactive contaminants left by 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946-1958. Each year the Forum communiqué reiterates calls on the US to live up to its full obligations on the provision of compensation and restoration of affected areas.
While Pacific leaders did discuss broader security and human rights issues, they were again mute on the ongoing violence levelled against West Papuans. On the eve of the Forum, an ABC 7.30 television exposé alleged human rights violations are being committed by an Indonesian anti terrorism unit, which receives Australian and US training and equipment.