Pacific votes for its future

Author: Rowan Callick

AFTER the grand announcements of the past days and weeks, the hard yards in regaining lost ground in the Pacific start now for Canberra.

The Pacific has resoundingly re-embraced democracy — with Fiji’s two former coup leaders contesting a peaceful election there — even while being courted energetically by China’s single party state.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Leaders at the APEC Summit in Port Moresby.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Leaders at the APEC Summit in Port Moresby.

The rare attention given the region through the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Port Moresby, and the announceme­nts of infrastructure provision by Canberra, Washington and Tokyo — responding to Beijing’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative deals — provides Pacific leaders with an opportunity to reinvigorate their mostly lacklustre economies. They will be eager to seize that chance, while being wary about how long that window will stay open.

In recent years, island leaders have pursued climate change as their chief opportunity to grab such attention. While observed data has shown some islands to be growing as others diminish, the Pacific has seized on dire forecasts from modelling to demand greater support.

International interest in the island­s had gradually faded after the era of decolonisation that began a half-century ago, substantially rekindled only with coups or the natural disasters — cyclones and earthquakes — to which they are tragically prone.

Their economic performance has failed to meet the expectations of their fast-growing populations, whose safety valve has come, espec­ially for the Polynesian island­s, via emigration.

Of the five most populous of the 14 independent Pacific states, Papua New Guinea is expected to grow economically by 2.9 per cent this year, with its 8.3 million people earning an average $4200 (US$3500 of gross domestic product; Fiji by 3.5 per cent, its 885,000 people earning $8200 (US$5956) per head; Solomon Islands by 3 per cent, its 614,000 people earning $3000(US$2179) per head; Vanuatu by 3.8 per cent, its 281,000 people earning $4500(US$3268) per head; and Samoa by 2.1 per cent, its 198,000 people earning $6000 (US$4358) per head.

Fiji has long been viewed as the region’s hub, for its central loca­tion and because it has ­enjoyed the most advanced infrastructure and the largest middle class — bolstered substantially by its ethnic Indian population, brought by Britain to cut cane but then, lacking land, placing its faith in education to improve its fortune.

The coups that plagued Fiji, in 1987, 2000 and 2006, and PNG’s year of two governments in 2011, spurred debate about the region’s democratic future, well before the recent global debate as the fortune­s of China and other authoritarian states have surged.

But PNG resolved its dilemma constitutionally, Peter O’Neill emerging as the victorious prime minister and going on to win general elections in 2012 and last year.

And in Fiji the 2000 coup leader George Speight remains in jail, while 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka and 2006 coup leader Frank Bainimarama, both former army commanders turned born again democrats, led their parties to contest last week’s election.

The latter, the incumbent Prime Minister, won by considerably less than anticipated, his FijiFirst party securing a narrow 50.02 per cent majority of all votes cast, while Rabuka’s SODELPA gained 39.85 per cent, and the National Federation Party — the oldest of them, dating back to independence, when it chiefly represented Indian business interests — securing 7.38 per cent.

Bainimarama, criticised as authoritarian, won the 2014 election with almost 60 per cent of the vote, having drafted a new constitution intended to break with the arrangement established by the British former colonisers that sought to shelter indigenous Fijians’ traditional rights, especially over land, and that had underwritten ethnic division.

Jon Fraenkel, professor of comparative politics at Victoria University, New Zealand, and a leading expert on Pacific issues, says the return to elections suggests ‘people, politicians and soldiers do see democracy, at least of sorts, as the norm in Fiji’ — although none of its four constitutions has been tested by referendum, and the latest, drafted in 2013, requires a three-quarters majority in parliament, followed by a referendum showing the support of three-quarters of registered voters, for an amendment.

Fraenkel tells The Australian that ‘all that euphoria’ from the Fiji opposition a week ago when a court ruled that Rabuka was eligible to stand following a challenge, and when ‘quarrelsome paramount chiefs’ patched up their differences to back SODELPA, ‘seems to have been worth only a few percentage points, showing that FijiFirst has established for itself a substantial indigenous vote even if the MPs it prefers to field are mostly of the rather subservient type, rather than truly representative of any community’.

Bainimarama with supporters during the election campaign.
Bainimarama with supporters during the election campaign.

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, says Bainimarama ‘finds himself in a much weaker position than expected. FijiFirst has a good narrative to spin of economic growth, infrastructure investment and enhanced service delivery, and Bainimarama enjoys significant personal popularity’, as well as quiet backing from ‘many foreign powers and business leaders’ led by Beijing, which has backed him from the start. Pryke says there will now be ‘a lot of soul-searching from the party to figure out why’ his strong position wasn’t reflected in the polls.

Nevertheless, voters, tired of the old ethnic divisions, do appear to have largely taken on Bainimarama’s new agenda and to focus instead on living standard issues.

The referendum a fortnight ago on independence in New Caledonia — a French territory with a population of 280,500 — underlined an eagerness to vote there, too, with a turnout of 80.63 per cent of eligible voters.

They opted for the status quo, by 56 per cent to 44 per cent, again narrower than expected and settin­g the stage for even more strongly contested referendums scheduled for 2020 and 2022. As it was this month, those votes will be restricted to indigenous Kanaks — Melanesians — and residents, largely from France, who came before 1994. Since the Kanak population has grown faster since 1994, and since Kanaks are considerably more supportive of independence, these future votes are likely to be tighter still.

In response, Fraenkel anticipates that ‘we can expect more of (President Emmanuel) Macron’s flowery sovereignty rhetoric’, promoted as an alternative to full independence.

On June 15 next year, the 234,000 people of Bougainville will vote in a referendum on independence, based on the New Caledonia arrangement that was a core element of the settlement ending the decade-long civil war there. This will prove a significant test for O’Neill, who strongly opposes a Bougainville breakaway, and for the region as a whole since the delicate process risks reigniting grievances that have been placed in abeyance.

The recent advent of China, and of Chinese capital and can-do construction, into the region — and last weekend’s response from Australia, the US and Japan — injec­ts a crucial new element into such zero-sum political decisions. This potentially provides more comfort for the status quo politicians and powers: the prospect of abundant funding for long overdue infrastructure that may enable island economies to develop truly sustainable, job creating industries rather than, as in the cases of the smaller countries especially, depending on aid and on remittances from emigrants or guest workers.

Much of the fresh attention to the region has followed claims that China has been scanning the islands for potential bases, including in Vanuatu and PNG.

China has denied this, but Aust­ralia and the US have pre-emptively agreed to redevelop the PNG Defence Force’s naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island, a highly strategic location addressing the northern approaches to Australia, where the US created a crucial platform for attacking Japanese forces in the central Pacific during World War II. Details have not been provided but Canberra and Washington would expect to have ready access to the base.

Beijing’s core regional shipping interest would appear to be supportin­g its deep-sea fishing fleet (the world’s largest), with the Pacific Islands containing the greatest resource of tuna and some other important targets. Its new suite of militarised islets in the South China Sea has meant ample protection for its trawlers there.

China’s only base in the islands region to date has been its space tracking station opened in 1997 on Bikenibeu, an islet near the airport at Tarawa, the largest island in the vast atoll nation of Kiribati that straddles the Equator. Beijing stated that this was part of its civil space program. However, the station was closed in 2003 when Kiribati switched its diplomatic loyalty from China to Taiwan.

Kiribati is one of six allies of Taiwan in the Pacific. China has eight partners, whose leaders — except for Bainimarama, otherwise engaged — flew to Port Mores­by for a meeting hosted by President Xi Jinping after his two-day state visit to PNG. ­Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed that, despite losing three partners this year to China, she will not contest vigorously with Beijing.

Apart from Fiji’s military, which earns handy income from UN peacekeeping and has twice removed governments, the Pacific is largely disengaged from strategic concerns.

University of PNG academic Patrick Kaiku has warned that ‘Australia conveys a patronising image of the Pacific when citing the China threat’ and that condescending rhetoric ‘will push Pacific political elites towards China’, while building long-term partnerships with PNG and other leaders and civil societies would develop ‘a powerful ally when the corrosive effects of China’s debt-trap diplomacy or militaristic agendas need confronting’.

Pacific Islanders have been familiar with Chinese people for many generations, some families having settled in the region, chiefly to operate trade stores or to trade commodities. This was to escape the constant conflict in China during the first half of last century, and the new regime after the commun­ist victory in 1949. But this century there has been a vast influx of new Chinese immigrants seeking to make their fortunes, part of a bigger wave of opportunistic people and capital washing on to many shores in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. They leverage off their mainland connections and in the process delocalise the small retai­l and food outlets that have long provided the first stepping stones for island entrepreneurs.

Some have built strong local connections but many have not, sparking animosities that led, for instance, to the burning of the Chinatowns in Honiara, Solomon Islands, and Nuku’alofa, Tonga, a dozen years ago.

Tensions have been somewhat defused since by the rapid extent of the complementary involvement of the Chinese state, including encouraging large infrastruc­ture and resource corporations it owns to win major construction tenders in the region. Previously, Chinese official engagement had been more sporadic: for instance, rewarding Samoa’s then prime minister for becoming the first foreig­n leader to visit Beijing after the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989 by building a new government headquarters and new sports stadiums in the islands.

Even just three years ago, the China Development Bank lacked a single official focusing on the Paci­fic. Now it disburses billions of dollars of funds for infra­struc­ture around the region, delivered by Chinese firms, often involving substantial Chinese labou­r.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Papua New Guinea's PM Peter O'Neill at the APEC forum
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Papua New Guinea’s PM Peter O’Neill at the APEC forum

Australia’s weekend offer to lead an attempt to bring electricity to 70 per cent of Papua New Guineans by 2030 — only about 15 per cent now have mains power — certainly provides a ‘wow’ factor that imaginatively outdid Xi’s more calibrated announcement in Port Moresby of stepping up existing commitments.

This didn’t come out of the blue. Three years ago, Port Jackson Partners produced for ANZ a report that urged exactly this goal, which would revolutionise PNG’s productive opportunities. Apart from tapping into the country’s growing gas production for export — already under way near Port Moresby — the challenge to realise this goal remains immense.

Little progress has been made since the ANZ report. John Mangos, who as PNG head of Digicel boosted mobile phone penetration from 4 per cent of the population to more than 40 per cent, and was appointed to run state company PNG Power to boost electricity acces­s similarly, fell foul of union pressure, among other problems, and was ousted.

Achieving Canberra’s goal will prove an immense challenge, which is likely to succeed only by enlisting considerable private sector support.

The core confrontation that prevented an agreed APEC communique came not, however, over strategic or aid issues but over trade. Washington sought to enlist the forum’s support for changing World Trade Organisation rules on predatory conduct, and for state-owned companies to compete on equal terms with privat­e firms, while Beijing wished it to back freer trade.

The Pacific, however, remains essentially a bystander on such issues, after more than 10 years’ negotiations still unable to agree a modest Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations with Australia and New Zealand.

For China and Australia and its partners, constructing closer relations of all sorts with the Pacific will continue to prove challenging, with money expended no guarantee of reciprocal loyalty.

But the islanders and their new-found — or suddenly restored — friends share in common the hope that, this time, the longstanding dream of a sustained rise in living standards will be realised, and that the grand pledges will not end as yet more failed cargo cults.

Rowan Callick is a double Walkley Award winner and a Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year. He has worked and lived in Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and Beijing.