Redefining the Pacific? Ian Frazer and Jenny Bryant-Tokalau Report on the 39th University of Otago Foreign Policy School Held in Dunedin in June 2004

Article excerpt

In almost tropical conditions, the Otago Foreign Policy School made a welcome return in 2004 to focusing on the Pacific. This year, rather than try and embrace the entire region, as in previous schools, (1) it was decided to focus on the question of regional co-operation. When planning for the school began there was heightened interest in this topic. The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had been launched and was in the early stages of operation; with much controversy, an Australian, Greg Urwin, was appointed as Forum Secretary-General, and Forum leaders at their annual summit meeting in Auckland in August made a decision to carry out the first major review of the Forum (the Auckland Declaration).

In addition, two years previously, Forum island countries took a major step towards trade liberalisation when nine signed two regional trade agreements, the first--Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement--involving themselves, and the second--Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations --being signed with Australia and New Zealand.

With these events in mind the theme chosen for the School was 'Redefining the Pacific? Regionalism, Past, Present and Future'. The school was co-directed by Ian Frazer and Philip Nel.

By the time of the school, the report of the Eminent Persons' Group set up to carry out the Forum review had been presented at a special leaders' retreat in Auckland in April. (2) The first group of speakers from New Zealand, Australia and the Forum Secretariat devoted a considerable part of their presentations to this report.

In his opening address, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Phil Goff concentrated especially on the vision contained in the review. Formally adopted by the 16 Forum members, this vision is intended to guide future actions and policies of the Forum. It includes four key goals: economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security. Goff made it clear that New Zealand, as Forum chair in 2003-4, had played a major role in pushing through the review, and that one of the main reasons for this was the poor performance of Pacific Islands countries in the 1990s: low economic growth, political instability, inadequate social services, weak leadership. New Zealand would continue to work bilaterally with Pacific Islands countries but wished to see regional institutions strengthened and playing a much more effective role in raising the performance of countries in the region. For Pacific Islands countries themselves, he suggested that there was no choice other than to work towards stronger and deeper regional integration.

This message was reinforced by Andie Fong Toy, Director of the Political, International and Legal Affairs Division of the Forum Secretariat, speaking on behalf of Greg Urwin. She elaborated in more detail on the economic, political and social difficulties faced by Forum countries and the reasoning behind the four goals contained in the Review report. The Forum Secretariat, in its lead role in pursuing these goals, as a first priority is drawing up a Pacific Plan showing how it is going to do this. Importantly there is now a firm commitment to major reform of the Forum Secretariat with the prospect of developing a much stronger and more effective regional institution than exists at present. What shape emerges is yet to be determined.

In the discussion following this presentation, the question was raised as to whether Australia and New Zealand were doing enough to assist Islands countries in pursuing the goals contained in the review. For example, in respect to economic development, Islands countries are rich in natural resources but these are largely exported in unprocessed form. More investment in value-added industries so they can increase the return from their resources is a priority.

General concerns

Chairman of the Pacific Co-operation Foundation Michael Powles raised a number of more general concerns about the review report. …