By Dr Jon Frankel for The Economist
PACIFIC leaders gathered in Port Vila, Vanuatu, earlier this month for their annual summit but missing some of the region’s key players.
Julia Gillard, Australia’s still-new prime minister, was busy fighting an election scheduled for August 21st, and sent a foreign minister in her stead. The Solomon Islands’ prime minister, Dr Sikua, was detained by another hotly contested election, held August 4th.
The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, stayed home too. Though he cited “personal reasons”, he happens to face perfectly public difficulties as well, not least rebels within his government who aim to oust him.
And then Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s military strongman-turned-prime-minister, was forbidden from attending. The forum has suspended Mr Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in 2006, ever since he breached his subsequent promise to hold elections by March 2009.
The forum—which is supposed to bring together leaders from Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia as well as Australia and New Zealand—is in trouble. For a start, although Fiji has been suspended and Mr Bainimarama’s military dictatorship shows no signs of changing any time soon, there is the awkward fact that the forum keeps its headquarters in Fiji’s capital, Suva.
Mr Bainimarama has lambasted its secretary-general, a Samoan, as a “puppet” of Australia and New Zealand. In July, Vanuatu’s prime minister, Edward Natapei, postponed a summit of leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which had been scheduled to convene in Fiji, because of concerns about “democracy and good governance”.
A furious Mr Bainimarama responded by expelling Australia’s acting high commissioner: he claimed that the Australians had conspired to deprive him of his turn to play host.
In place of that summit, Mr Bainimarama arranged a hastily reconfigured “Friends of Fiji” meeting, which was attended by both Mr Somare and Dr Sikua.
Though both of them had endorsed the forum’s suspension of Fiji last year, at the “Friends of Fiji” meeting they nevertheless signed a communiqué which credited Mr Bainimarama’s government for having a 'credible home-grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation and to hold a true democractic elections.'
That’s a doublespeak endorsement of Mr Bainimarama’s refusal to hold elections until September 2014—which was exactly the grounds for his being turfed out of the Pacific Islands Forum in the first place.
As a matter of tactics, this is incoherent. By keeping Fiji excluded from the forum, but included in sub-regional gatherings, his Pacific neighbours send Mr Bainimarama a mixed message at best. It might be argued that this half-and-half approach avoids isolating Fiji completely and so leaves the door open to concessions, for instance on the timetable for elections.
The trouble is that so far Mr Bainimarama has conceded nothing. Until he does, and unless the Fiji problem is resolved some other way, it is unlikely that the Pacific Islands Forum will be able to achieve much else.
Australia succeeded in persuading the smaller island states to start discussing a free-trade deal at last year’s summit in Cairns, but with Fiji excluded the prospects of success always looked bleak. The hopes for a breakthrough on trade have since faded.
Both Julia Gillard and the leader of Australia’s conservative opposition, Tony Abbott, talk about finding a “regional solution” to Australia’s refugee problem. But for want of a functioning regional forum, the issue is pursued bilaterally. Mr Abbott says he wants to reopen mothballed facilities for keeping refugees on the tiny, bankrupted island of Nauru.
Once rich in phosphates, Nauru desperately needs Australian cash. But its 18-member parliament has been deadlocked for months, and consequently unable to select a new president. Without a government in place, says Ms Gillard, Nauru cannot sign the UN Convention on Refugees. Mr Abbott disagrees, and so does Nauru’s foreign minister, Kieren Keke.
Since both factions in the fractious little parliament agree that the UN Convention ought to be signed (though they agree on little else), Messrs Abbot and Keke reason, Nauru should be capable of passing legislation to allow the reopening of a detention centre there.
The region stands badly in need of an effective forum. In times of acute trouble its states need a way to respond to trouble within the region: as they did in 2003 when a mission to the Solomon Islands disarmed and arrested a band of militants who had seized control of the country.
This vast neighbourhood also needs a collective and coherent voice to be heard on the international stage, where the interests of small and remote island-states seldom command attention on their own.
If the impasse with Fiji cannot be settled in the near future, the other parties must somehow find a way to circumvent it. Without the forum, Fiji suffers not alone but with all the countries of the Pacific, great and small.