Pacific Politics Revamped from an Island Perspective
Melanesian grouping of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands reconsider their regional links
They've come a long way from trading fish and coconuts. There's discord in the Melanesian Spearhead Group over the accession of Fiji to the chairmanship, a battle that reflects recognition of the growing importance of Melanesia as global demand for resources heats up.
That wasn't always the case. The inception of the group, initially as a trade bloc, in the mid-1980s drew derision from some. Vanuatu's ambassador at the EU, Roy Mickey Joy, remembers when they started negotiations for the MSG trade agreement: "The reaction we got from Canberra and Wellington was 'what are the Melanesians going to trade with, fish and coconuts?'"
Since then, there's been a shift in global economic policy, says Mickey Joy. The group now has a bigger role to play in the region and beyond.
These days, the MSG – whose full members are Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – has functioning administrative bodies following the establishment in 2008 of its own secretariat, in the Vanuatu capital of Port Vila. The group is what Mickey Joy describes as "a very important nucleus in terms of co-operation with the international community".
Melanesia has 85% of the people and 98% of the total land area of the Pacific Islands region. And it easily has the most wealth in terms of natural resources.
By far the largest of the Melanesian countries, Papua New Guinea boasts a mass of natural wealth with significant mineral, fisheries, forestry, oil and gas reserves. The development that everyone in PNG is talking about is the ExxonMobil-led liquefied natural gas project across several of PNG's southern provinces.
The biggest single commercial development in the wider Pacific island region, it is expected to net PNG around $30bn over three decades. The 700km pipeline is expected to start shipping gas in 2014. Long-term supply agreements have been arranged with the likes of China's Sinopec and Japan's Tepco.
"Confidence is growing in PNG as a result of the potential wealth from mineral and LNG projects," says David Hegarty of the Australian National University's state, society and governance in Melanesia program. "It's a matter of national pride that they have declared an end in sight to their reliance on Australian aid."
Parliamentary politics in Melanesia is still too often threatened by no-confidence motions. But despite political instability, the relative democratic stability in Melanesia has helped to lay the foundations for economic growth. PNG, for instance, has had average GDP growth of over 5% in the last three years.
With Fiji an exception because of repeated coups, Hegarty says governments have respected the democratic rights inherent in traditional Melanesian societies.
John Henderson of Canterbury University's school of political science, questions whether the region's paramount organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum, can regain its regional leadership role.
"The growing strength of the MSG will be looked back on as the most significant shift in regionalism in the early years of this century," he says."This is part due to the current weakness of the forum. It's possible that the MSG will emerge as the most influential regional grouping."
The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, says the MSG's strengthening does not undermine the forum. "The MSG was not formed to challenge the forum."
However, the notion of Melanesian solidarity has been challenged more than once by forum policy, which many islanders see as being dominated by the governments of Australia and New Zealand. The two have long been leading donor partners for the islands.
Fiji has been controversial because of its military-led regime, which remains in power four years after a coup. The forum has suspended Fiji from the 16-member body because the regime hasn't agreed to a timeline for holding elections. The Commonwealth has suspended Fiji and the EU has frozen major funding to the nation's all-important sugar industry.
Australia and New Zealand have been leading advocates of this hardline stance, complete with travel and other sanctions, against Commodore Frank Bainimarama's military regime. The sanctions haven't driven a return to democracy, and there is clear reluctance among Melanesians to isolate Fiji. Under the group's rotating chair system, it is Fiji's turn in the leadership role. But those opposed to Fiji's chairmanship of the MSG say that under its constitution, the group cannot hand the role to an unelected government.
"The sticky situation they've found themselves in indicates divided opinion," says Hegarty. "But nonetheless it indicates a preparedness to get up the nostrils of Australia and New Zealand a bit – without, they hope, antagonising the Polynesians and Micronesians too much."
Whether Melanesian countries will drift from their traditional partnerships with Australia and New Zealand, and further towards the influence of China and other Asian powers, is unclear. Bainimarama is outspoken in his view that Fiji no longer needs assistance from Australia and New Zealand as he strengthens links with China, which impose fewer restrictions on aid.
"PNG and Pacific nations would be foolish not to look towards Asian nations to learn from their prosperity," Somare says. The MSG countries may occupy some of the lowest ranks in the indices of human development, but few people actually go hungry. The majority are fed and housed by the traditional, or subsistence, economy. Recognising this, the MSG has established a two-year programme to develop indicators of wellbeing in the traditional Melanesian context.
It's a sign that the group is consolidating a truly Melanesian perspective on Pacific affairs, which could help them rise above the internal conflicts that have long dominated the region.