I do not recall a period where as many Pacific nations as now being in serious political and economic strife. More disturbing still is the fact that there is no Pacific leader in sight with the clout and capacity to muster the required regional and international support to bring a speedy resolution to the several festering diplomatic hostilities between a number of regional heavyweights.
The void of regional leadership, disappointing as it is, provides the opportunity for an aspirant to stand up to this challenge. There are potential candidates but not a visible contender for this role yet.
The Fijians are out of the running for this role given that the regime in Suva is less than democratic and facing considerable opposition from Australia and New Zealand.
As a pariah state and one against whom considerable behind-the-scene manoeuvring has been taking place to force it to accelerate its pace towards a return to democracy, the Fijians will be struggling to remain at the regional table.
Suva being home to USP, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and a proposed regional training school gives Fiji an upper hand in the regional contests, however.
Australia and New Zealand have fallen from favour amongst a number of Pacific leaders.
Their continued campaign for a speedy return to democracy in Fiji and the willingness to use all available means to this end is unlikely to see either of these nations taking on the leadership role for the Pacific region.
While their reactions to date to the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Fiji are understandable, the manner in which these messages were conveyed has created considerable animosity between Fiji and its two rich near neighbours.
HOPE FOR PROGRESS
Fiji, however, needs to mend its relationships with Australia and New Zealand more than the converse; thus there is hope for progress on this front.
The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands is also at loggerheads with his Australian-counterpart. New Zealand has often come to the rescue when Australia has failed to have sway with its Pacific neighbours.
Not this time, probably because New Zealand is still recovering from the failed attempt at brokering a peace deal between the Fiji military commander and deposed Prime Minister on the eve of the last coup. Political instability in Honiara is anything but over, thus regional concerns are not likely to draw the attention of leaders from Solomon Islands.
Count Tonga out too. The pre-Christmas fires of Nuku’alofa may have been snuffed out but many of the issues that led to the riots remain smouldering underneath.
Having learnt from their experiences in Honiara and Dili just months earlier, Australia and New Zealand were quick to come to the rescue of the embattled regime in Nuku’alofa. Their support, however, may have only addressed a symptom rather than the deeper cause for the unrest.
The Tongan government is struggling with the thankless task of rebuilding the capital and rescuing the economy whilst juggling political change in a relatively hostile domestic environment. No time to worry beyond the immediate for this regime.
Papua New Guinea has been the bright spot over the recent past. The problems in Bougainville are on the mend, the economy is growing and the government has for the first time in its history seen through its full term without facing a motion of no confidence.
But national election is due in June, campaigning is already in full swing and there is little time for grandstanding by the political aspirants on the regional front.
National elections are also due in Australia later in the year (my informers tell me this may take place around October). Any grandstanding on regional issues by the aspirants of political office in Canberra will be principally for local consumption.
A tough stance on belligerent Pacific Islands leaders may have some appeal to the traditional voter heartlands of the two major parties, something that Pacific leaders would need to factor in when responding to pronouncements from Down-Under.
It is indeed unfortunate that Australia, at a time when its taxpayers (myself included) are sparing the largest amount of resources ever for the region, is possibly the least popular amongst its neighbours.
Just to give you some idea on the extent of transfers from Canberra, Australian taxpayers are forking out some A$500 for every man, woman and child in the Solomon Islands. This is not to even remotely suggest that every Solomon Islander gets this sum—getting to the bottom of where the money really goes is a separate discussion for another day—but my fellow workers are still sparing these resources in the name of the poor.
Aid, as one critic had long pointed out, ‘is a transfer from the poor of the rich countries to the rich of the poor countries’. I can relate to this, seeing how my tax dollars channelled into aid gets used (and abused).
So who are the potential candidates for Pacific leadership? Australia and, less so New Zealand, despite their economic clout would have to be counted out given the animosities with several Pacific nations.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia have enough worries at home. Vanuatu, a quiet and recent achiever, could be a candidate except for its quietness.
Samoa, another candidate with sound economic performance for the past several years, is a definite contender for regional leadership but has as yet to raise its hand.
Cook Islands and Palau are possibilities, but their size and isolation from the scenes of action may be a handicap. Fiji has traditionally provided such leadership, particularly under the leadership of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Kapaiwai Tuimacilai Mara, but count this nation out until democracy returns to Suva.
This leaves the incoming PNG Prime Minister due to take office in mid-2007 as the most promising possibility.
As the largest Pacific nation and one with a robust democracy, recent political stability and an economy on the rebound presents the best opportunity for the leader of this ‘Land of the Unexpected’ to come to the rescue of the region.
It has happened before; recall that Sir Julius Chan (not my relative as some have suggested) sent troops to quell a rebellion on Espiritu Santo in the lead-up to independence in Vanuatu.
Yes, mid-2007 may just be the hour for the PM of PNG to stand up and be counted as the leader of the Pacific!
Dr Satish Chand