The long-awaited US-Pacific Partnership talks have drawn mixed reactions from around the region and a number Pacific Island countries are facing ongoing electoral uncertainty.
The long-awaited US-Pacific Partnership talks in Washington ended with a joint declaration on 29 September, celebrated by Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General (SG) Henry Puna as a ‘critical space of consensus.’
The partnership outlined commitments from the United States in areas of fisheries, leadership development, climate and oceans. The agreement was met by praise from some Pacific leaders, including Fiji Prime Minister and Forum Chair Frank Bainimarama, who said he had “new reassurance that America’s might and resources are with our people across the Pacific.”
However, the non-profit organisation Pacific Elders Voice (PEV) expressed concern that the agreement did not reflect island state concerns. The PEV claimed that the summit was overly concerned with geopolitics and left other crucial issues, including economic growth, climate change, and nuclear and maritime security, with little more than ‘statements of shallow aspiration.’
As PEV’s focus on climate change induced damage was also reinforced by the recent declaration of a La Niña weather event for the third year in a row in the Pacific. This presents increased likelihood of floods in southwest Pacific countries such as Fiji, whilst Kiribati’s drought is expected to worsen.
Furthermore, Salesa Nihmei, the Pacific Regional Environment Programme’s (SPREP) meteorology and climatology adviser, noted that an increasing prevalence in water borne diseases is likely for the south and west Pacific. Drought-prone Papua New Guinean (PNG) islands and Tuvalu will be increasingly vulnerable to water shortages, crop failure and food insecurity.
Training has commenced for a delegation of 34 officers of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force in China. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare assured Australia during his visit to Canberra this month that the Soloman Islands security pact with China does not include plans for a Chinese military base.
However, Australia’s Office of National Intelligence Director-General Andrew Shearer has continued to express concern, suggesting that Chinese policing tactics ‘could incite further instability and violence in the Solomon Islands.’ Sogavare has attributed the decision to pursue training in China to Australia’s failure to protect Chinese infrastructure in the Honiara riots of November last year – a claim that is refuted by Australian officials – noting that the pact will allow Chinese police to protect multi-million dollar Chinese infrastructure projects.
Police in Tonga are also receiving financial assistance from the Chinese government, which donated $65,000 to upgrade the Tonga police headquarters in Longolongo. This donation was made a week before the annual South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting (SPDMM) in Tonga.
The SPDMM is attended by PNG, Fiji and Tonga – the only states with militaries in the Pacific – along with regional allies including Australia, New Zealand, France and Chile. Ministers will visit areas affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami which hit the Kingdom in January this year. The purpose of these visits is to serve as a ‘reminder’ of the importance of ‘com[ing] to each other’s aid’, after 84 per cent of Tonga’s residents were impacted by the ashfall from the eruption.
Fiji is facing electoral uncertainty as there remains no date for the 2022 general election. Leader of the opposition National Federation Party, Professor Biman Prasad, has accused Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimamara of ‘holding the nation to ransom’ as time runs out for the election to be held before 9 January 2023.
Professor Prasad has criticised that the elections will likely be held over the holiday period, arguing that this will inconvenience families and non-government organisations. Further, he asserted that the timing will make it difficult for the diplomatic community to effectively send and support members for the Multinational Observer Group to monitor the election.
Talks on New Caledonia’s new statute, intended to take place in Paris, are proceeding with no representation from the pro-independence movement. The two largest pro-independence groups, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) and the Union nationale pour l’indépendance (UNI), have refused to send delegates to the negotiations, citing insufficient details being given about what the talks will entail.
In PNG, the 2022 election has been deemed the most violent since the country’s independence, leaving 90,000 people displaced since May. Most of those affected are women and children, with an estimated 25,000 students impacted by ongoing school closures in Hela, the Southern Highlands, and Enga provinces.
Finally, the snap election in Vanuatu has been held, however who will form government remains unclear. Despite this, Gloria Julia Kings has been confirmed as Vanuatu’s first woman member of parliament since 2008.