Every year there is an annual forum in the South Pacific called the Pacific Islands Forum. It is an opportunity for the nations of the South Pacific to meet and discuss issues of the day – be it climate change, security, the economic performance of the region or disaster relief.
Like other regions of the planet, the South Pacific has its own power games going on. These games are played at three different tiers with an interchange between them. At the top there are the major nations of New Zealand, Australia and now France – whose colonial outposts of French Polynesia (Tahiti, etc) and New Caledonia – have now joined the P.I.F. The mid tier are the ones with regional power, such as Fiji and Samoa, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea.
With climate change, the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship, China trying to muscle its way into South Pacific affairs and ongoing issues with socio-economic development there is plenty happening at the P.I.F. each year. In 2016 it is the turn of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who is trying to suggest that Australia and New Zealand, the traditional power houses whose economic and political muscle could cripple his dictatorship effortlessly – or run the risk of turning ordinary Fiji’s ethnic divisions into something worse – should not have a place at the P.I.F.
To this end Commodore Bainimarama has been cultivating a group of smaller nations to form a sub forum as part of a power play against Australia and New Zealand. Commodore Bainimarama is playing on dangerous ground. His dictatorship is very sensitive to New Zealand and Australian media and would have known when it stripped the the Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs of his role and arrested Opposition Members of Parliament that this would anger the trans-Tasman neighbours.
Surprisingly New Zealand has not reacted strongly. Contrary to the strong reactions of 2000 and 2006 when moves to stifle democracy and freedom of speech in Fiji were met with outrage, the New Zealand Government seems content with tip toeing around the fringe of the issue. Despite Chinese interest in the region, this delicate movement of toes rather than feet has not had anything to do with Beijing’s quests for more natural resources to feed its vast economy.
With climate change threatening numerous smaller island members of the Forum, some of whom may disappear completely in the coming decades, any opportunity for China to develop more “friendly” ties with vulnerable atoll states should be watched with caution. By stepping up to the plate with a more aggressive climate change policy, New Zealand would be saying that it is aware of and respects the concerns of these small states, something it has thus far been rather lacklustre in.