The Pacific Islands Forum will announce a new Biketawa Plus Declaration at its forthcoming Ministerial summit with fresh directions and priorities for members in the face of external pressures on the region, not least from China and Russia. There will be particular attention to security issues in keeping with good governance and the rule of law. The Forum owes much its character and structure to a former Australian diplomat and late Secretary General whose regional experience provided formative insights for its development in the modern era.
The sinews of a viable Pacific Islands cooperative grouping with concerns for regional security, in addition to economic and social development, democratic values and human rights, are beginning to take a firm form. In an overdue development – previously impeded by local conflict and political instability, and it could be said Australia’s benign neglect of the region over several decades – the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum will next September sign a new Declaration, Biketawa Plus, to guide the Forum on its priorities for security cooperation and provide a framework for meeting emerging threats in keeping with good governance and the rule of law.
The Declaration is also expected to cover environmental concerns and climate change resilience (such as protection against rising sea levels).
There has been a long-lead up to this point, beginning with the formation of the South Pacific Commission in 1947, a body whose main task was to coordinate and cover the regional programs and interests of the former colonial powers. Over time the Commission lost something of its standing and influence as the island states gained independence and sought to shake off those former colonial connections.
Following unsettling periods involving failures of governance in several of the territories- such as the George Speight coup attempt in Fiji in 2000 and the subsequent denial of democratic values in that country; and the racial and ethnic violence in the Solomons leading to the successful peace-keeping intervention by Australia through the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) in 2003 – the Forum has sought to increase its presence and assert its own political prerogatives – more so than has been seen previously among such inter-governmental groups in the region.
The Declaration in September will be known as Biketawa Plus, after the initial Biketawa Declaration in 2000 prompted by the Fiji coup at that time. An inspirational and formative genius progressing this move at the time was an Australian diplomat, Greg Unwin, who had served for many years in the region having opened Australia’s first diplomatic mission in Apia, later as Australian High Commissioner in Vanuatu and Fiji, and then as Deputy High Commissioner in New Zealand.
At the 2000 Forum summit in Kiribati Mr Unwin played a key role in the drafting of the first Biketawa Declaration which followed a closed-door ‘retreat’ of members on an off-shore island of the same name. This consolidated the political cohesion of the members that has been built on since.
At the initial Kiribati meeting Unwin was nominated for the position of first secretary-general of the Forum but being an Australian met some opposition. However his regional credentials and acknowledged experience, and personal skills, carried the day and when the question of a second term arose, his renewal was confirmed without objection. As Secretary-General he saw the Forum adopt its “Pacific Plan” at the Port Morseby summit in 2005 – a scheme of cooperation based on its “four pillars” of economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security.
[Greg Urwin died in 2008: see Hamish McDonald, “Careful diplomat brokered regional co-operation, SMH, Aug 15, 2008]
The governmental initiatives this year are clearly a response to increasing concerns over Chinese naval and diplomatic activity in the region, including reports of the alleged funding of a naval base in Vanuatu, since denied; and other projects whereby it is being said that expensive Chinese loans with strict repayment terms are being forced on these vulnerable island states – as a consequence of the relative neglect of islander development goals in past decades.
On the military and security front it is to be noted that military exercises known as “Indo-Pacific Endeavour” were held this year and included defence and security training with forces from Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, PNG and the Solomon Islands. The Australian army is also supporting the development of Vanuatu’s mobile forces. A defence co-operation program operating more widely in the Pacific Islands has included the delivery of new Guardian Class offshore patrol vessels.
In addition to more aid money from the May Budget, the Australian government recently agreed to build a 4,000 km $136 million undersea internet cable connection between the Solomons and Australia to prevent, it is said, the Chinese company Huawei being involved in the project, allegedly for security reasons.
Earlier in its Foreign Policy White Paper the government committed to setting up an Australian Pacific Security College “to deliver security and law enforcement training at the leadership level”.
The Australian newspaper reported on 5th July that a Parliamentary Library briefing paper speculated that these commitments “may reflect a renewed desire on the part of the Australian government to work with Pacific Island countries to ensure values such as the rule of law and transparency are strengthened as new players in the region emerge” – a nod towards China and Russia.
The South Pacific is no longer a backwater for Australia. It is an area of strategic and political importance locally. More particularly, unlike with southeast and east Asia, it is a region where Australia can exercise real influence for good and be taken notice of. This carries commensurate responsibilities. The Pacific Islands Forum’s Biketava Plus initiative is the most recent example where Australia’s influence for good can be exercised effectively, with one caution: our defence and intelligence cadres should conduct themselves in these regions, when it is appropriate for them to be there at all, with a light touch. The Pacific Islanders are the stakeholders in this region and must be seen as the drivers of their own destiny – with help from their friends. Australia cannot afford to be seen as acting as if it runs the place, least of all act as the local bully. That could lead to an embarrassing displacement.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser.