Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Transforming the Regional Architecture: New Players and Challenges for the Pacific Islands

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Transforming the Regional Architecture: New Players and Challenges for the Pacific Islands

Article excerpt

Governments and citizens across the Pacific islands are debating whether the existing network of regional intergovernmental organizations is capable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century.

With an increasingly complex global agenda, the institutions that make up the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific face significant problems.1 There is widespread contention over leadership and governance; the inability of current trade, aid, and economic policies to address poverty; increasing assertiveness by citizens who want to contribute to regional policy; and the transformative impact of climate change on vulnerable economies and environments.

Much of the debate focuses on the Pacific Islands Forum, the political institution that links Australia, New Zealand, and 14 independent island nations. Even though they are the key donors for the Forum, Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand have a growing number of policy interests that diverge from those of their island neighbors, making it difficult to forge a regional consensus. Island states are increasingly looking to "nontraditional" development partners and using mechanisms outside the Forum. Many innovative policies are being promoted through the Pacific Small Island Developing States group or subregional organizations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Polynesian Leaders Group and Micronesian Chief Executives' meetings.

Adding significantly to this mix of tension and debate are changing regional dynamics, the role of new development partners, and Fiji's status within the Pacific Islands Forum. The focus on Fiji's regional role overshadows more fundamental policy differences between island states and the two largest Forum members, Australia and New Zealand-differences that will continue to drive the transformation of regional institutions.

Challenges for Regional Institutions

Much of the regionalism debate has focused on the issue of leadership, especially within the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. The mandate and functioning of the secretariat has been sharply critiqued in reviews of its 2005 Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Integration. After widespread consultation, a team led by former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta produced a frank critique of the regional architecture in 2013, describing the region as "at the crossroads."2

Morauta was especially critical of the Pacific Plan, stating: "It is very difficult to see how the Pacific Plan or the processes surrounding it are-now-driving regional integration with the scope, pace and scale intended in its original framing. Confidence in the Pacific Plan and some of the institutions around it has fallen to the point where some observers question their survival."3

The ascension in 2014 of Papua New Guinea's Dame Meg Taylor to the position of Forum secretary general has generated new momentum, as has the replacement of the Pacific Plan by a new Framework on Pacific Regionalism.4 For Taylor, "regionalism had lost its politics under the Pacific Plan," while the new Framework provides "a process for identifying the region's public policy priorities."5

Taylor argues that the regional context is rapidly being transformed: "There is unprecedented interest by a wide range of external actors in our region- some new, some old, and all combined to present a crowded and complex geopolitical landscape. In addition, our regional architecture is more complex and varied than it once was. Part of this complexity arises from the way in which the regional architecture is governed and financed."6

Most Forum Island Countries depend on Official Development Assistance. They have been buffeted by the recent restructuring of aid programs from long-term donors like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (which have all merged independent development agencies into their foreign affairs departments). Debates over aid effectiveness have refocused attention on remittances, climate financing, innovative funding sources such as currency transfer levies, and the possibility of obtaining grants or loans from "nontraditional" development partners. …

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