The idea of regional cooperation in the Pacific first surfaced in 1947, when the colonial powers administering territories in the Pacific agreed to establish a “South Pacific Commission” (SPC) to ensure the security of the region. Since then, the number of organisations aimed at promoting a Pacific regional community has mushroomed, beginning with the South Pacific Forum in 1971 and now spanning macro-formations like the Forum Fisheries Agency to specific regional partnerships, such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
While regional cooperation has long been critical to these geographically scattered and widely heterogeneous countries - giving them economies of scale, strengthening their collective bargaining power, and reinforcing a sense of community, among other benefits - it has become, in the words of Greg Fry, a “highly complex political process.” This article highlights some of the political constraints on creating a more integrated Pacific regional community, a process that has been ongoing for nearly 60 years but has yet to achieve the outcomes that regional organisations often aspire to achieve.
The goals of regional organisations like the Forum have long been criticised as being inherently politicised, often reflecting country-specific, and not collective, interests. Just as the SPC was initially established to serve the security interests of the colonial powers, so was the original Forum (and its offshoot, the South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation) initially a vehicle to engage questions of neo-liberal economics. As Fry and others have noted, the fledgling organisation was largely symbolic, reflecting the prevailing regional (re)allocation of power and traipsing informally in its “official” proceedings.
Under the leadership of Fiji’s Ratu Sir Kamasese Mara, moreover, the Forum drew criticism as power became centralised in Suva. Quoting Ron Crocombe, Fiji began “hijacking the lion’s share” and reaping benefits derived from its primacy within the organisation. The takeover of Air Pacific by Fiji and the establishment of the University of the South Pacific’s main campus in Suva have been cited as examples of Forum inequity, and they remain contentious issues to this day.
Another setback is the sheer number of regional institutions, conferences, and organisations - many of which seem to obstruct, rather than promote, the formation of a regional community. From the Honiara-based Forum Fisheries Agency to the Honolulu-based Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP), and all the funny acronyms in between, there is a growing need to realign or rearticulate these groups’ respective objectives and weigh their relative strengths and weaknesses.
The region is fragmented deeper when countries are kept in the dark about the formation of new plans and initiatives, as was the case for some countries with the recent “Pacific Plan,” aimed at pooling regional governance. The mere existence of the South Pacific Organisations Coordination Committee, an organisation whose very objective is to manage these various organisations, is a testament to the need for greater consolidation and transparency at all levels of policy-making.
Further hindering regional cooperation is the problem of island heterogeneity, particularly in terms of resources. In 2001, when the islands pooled themselves for greater economic integration by establishing the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA), compromises had to be made regarding who received what kind of “handicaps,” and how. Economic liberalisation - and ultimately, real, sustainable growth - it was argued, can only be achieved if sacrifices were made for the greater good, a tenet of the “Pacific Way” - a term coined by former Cook Islands’ PM Albert Henry in 1975. This sort of economic give-and-take is divisive, with countries often feeling miffed by certain concessions: why should Fiji have to lose its Foster’s beer brewery, or Nauru its New Zealand-imported mutton flaps? The high cost of consultants to evaluate these issues critically, furthermore, leaves poorer countries at a comparative disadvantage.
Most importantly, perhaps, is a need to define who speaks on behalf of the region, and how the answer to this question is legitimised, both politically and morally.
The recent installation of an Australian as the head of the Forum - the first time a non-Pacific islander has occupied this position in the organisation’s history - sparked much controversy. While Australia has long been a de facto peace broker of the region, its roles in key initiatives like the “Pacific Plan” have become increasingly contested. As Pacific Islanders are growing more and more aware of their own cultural and regional identities - identities moving away from their colonial heritage and towards a greater sense of self-determination - they are also more likely to see countries like Australia and New Zealand as overbearing and even hegemonic (embodied in John Howard’s “our patch” characterisation). How can a more effective, representative voice be generated - one that effectively thwarts political agendas catering to specific countries or elite factions? On what grounds would this be legitimised?
While these questions add to the complexity of creating a more integrated Pacific regional community, one should not overlook the fact that the community has made progress over the past 35 years. The collective voice asserted by Pacific Island countries helped prevent France from conducting more nuclear tests in French Polynesia, while the Biketawa Declaration drafted by the Forum after the coups in Fiji and the Solomon Islands in 2002 invokes a moral imperative for both collective security and good governance. The construction of a high-speed cable line at the floor of the Pacific Ocean will connect many of these countries virtually within the next decade, while the increase in airline carriers will facilitate regional mobility.
As the Eminent Persons Group recently redefined the goals of the Forum to emphasise the Pacific cultural identity as a guiding principle for community building - especially with regard to security and development - it is critical now to negotiate a vision that celebrates islander agency without alienating Australia and New Zealand (and perhaps other countries, like China and Japan, which have recently become more involved in island affairs).
Ultimately, it is the interplay between global ideologies and local ones - a tension that permeates all facets of the post-colonial Pacific experience - that will determine how this regional community advances and matures.