TESS NEWTON CAIN | TNC Pacific Consulting | East Asia Forum
BRISBANE - The changed and changing geo-strategic environment of the Pacific islands made its presence known on numerous occasions during the year. After decades of neglect, the region was ‘rediscovered’ by strategists in Australia, the United States and elsewhere.
The influence of China in the Pacific has been the subject of much debate and analysis, some of it of questionable quality.
While China’s engagement with Pacific island countries is not new, it has become more significant of late. A year of jumping at shadows and knee-jerk announcements culminated in the APEC summit, held in Port Moresby in November.
China cemented a number of key bilateral relationships with Pacific island countries by securing sign-ups to its Belt and Road Initiative.
Nervous Western allies sought to reassert diplomatic and strategic strength through some big announcements, including a redevelopment of the Lombrum naval base on Manus and an ambitious plan to bring electricity to 70% of Papua New Guinea’s population.
Earlier in the year, the renewed geopolitical competition between China and Taiwan caused headaches at the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Nauru, which saw the Chinese delegation walkout from the Forum Dialogue Partners meeting.
A referendum on independence in New Caledonia in November was another significant event this year. First envisaged in the 1998 Noumea Accords, the referendum was long awaited.
While the result was largely as expected (to remain a part of France), two other aspects of the vote stood out. One was the high turnout (over 80%) and the other was the narrow margin of the result (56.4% ‘No’ to 43.6% ‘Yes’).
Other than some sporadic unrest immediately after the voting concluded, the referendum proceeded smoothly and peacefully. There is the possibility of two more independence referendums following the process established under the Noumea Accords, with the next anticipated to be in 2020.
2018 also saw the second round of elections in Fiji since the 2006 coup. In the lead up to elections there was a great deal of focus on the battle between Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Sitiveni Rabuka, leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party and reformed coup leader.
Rabuka was subject to legal proceedings relating to alleged fraud until the eve of the elections, when the public prosecutor’s appeal against acquittal was dismissed by the High Court.
The elections saw Fiji First return to government with Bainimarama reinstalled as prime minister but with a significantly reduced majority, reflecting a swing away from his party of more than 9%. Notably, there are now 10 women in the Fijian parliament. At 20% of the total, this is a significant achievement in a region where rates of female representation in national decision-making are among the lowest in the world.
In early December, opposition parties issued a petition challenging the results of the elections, which the High Court will determine by the end of the year.
The influence of Australia’s domestic politics trickled into the Pacific islands on several occasions throughout the year. A change in leadership saw the replacement of former foreign minister Julie Bishop, a well-known figure in the region, with Senator Marise Payne.
Fresh from her stint as minister for defence, Payne’s first job was to attend the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Nauru in place of the new prime minister, Scott Morrison. His absence was noted at home and away, and continues Australia’s poor track record in this regard.
2018 also saw the burgeoning Seasonal Worker Program come under attack on the back of a push by National Party MPs and the Farmers’ Federation to bulldoze through an agricultural visa, regardless of what the impact might be on strategic relationships in the Pacific.
Policy disunity in Canberra is a longstanding weakness of Australia’s Pacific engagement. It is hoped that the new ‘Pacific office’ in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which aims to foster a whole-of-government approach, will go some way to improving things.
Finally, this year saw an escalation of concerns expressed by Pacific island leaders about the lack of global solidarity with and — worse — active undermining of regional ambitions to tackle climate change.
Whether because of bad manners on the part of ministers or failure to support the global leadership of the Marshall Islands’ Hilda Heine and others, there are indications that patience with extra-regional partners is wearing thin.
Australia has much to do in this regard to justify its ‘Pacific pivot’ and prove that its renewed commitment to the region is about more than power politics.
Tess Newton Cain is an independent researcher and analyst with over 20 years of Pacific experience. She lived in Vanuatu between 1997 and 2016 and is a citizen of that country