As the VIP jets descend on the sleepy Cook Islands for the opening of the 43rd annual Pacific Islands Forum, one critical guest will again be missing. Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama – the leader of the most influential island state – has been barred from successive Forum summits for the past three years. Yet whatever shape the formal proceedings in Rarotonga take, his name will be on the lips of many delegates behind the scenes – not least Hilary Clinton, who is making the first visit to a Forum summit by a US Secretary of State. Clinton knows that Fiji is too big to be ignored, too strategically important to be sidelined and that it’s high time its isolation was ended. This is almost certain to be the last time Bainimarama is excluded as America works this week to persuade its ANZUS partners, in particular, to bring him in from the cold.
Fiji was suspended from the Forum in 2009 when Bainimarama refused to bow to regional demands to hold an immediate election. Three years on, he’s implemented concrete steps – including work on a new constitution – to restore a purer democracy in two year’s time than ever existed before. Yet none of it has satisfied the two big players in regional affairs –Australia and New Zealand -who aren’t strictly speaking island states at all. They’ve maintained their dogged opposition to any weakening of the Forum’s attempts to bring Fiji to heel yet in doing so, have badly weakened the organisation itself.
It cannot be lost on Hilary Clinton that while Frank Bainimarama is sidelined from the Forum, he’s the current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), that brings together the biggest and most influential island states – Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomons, Vanuatu plus the Kanaks of New Caledonia. Last week in Fiji, Bainimarama hosted a gabfest of his own that also demonstrated the futility of barring him from the Pacific Forum. His Engaging With Fiji Summit brought together all of the MSG nations plus the Cook Islands – this year’s Forum host -and Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, Timor Leste and Tuvalu. So much for isolating Fiji. Morocco, Kazakstan and Kosovo also attended the Fiji meeting, yet another sign that Fiji is looking to new partnerships – notably in the Non Aligned Movement – that bypass its traditional relationships.
Clinton knows that the Pacific Forum is a shadow of its former self so long as Fiji is excluded. Why? Because no Pacific plan of action can realistically be implemented without the country’s participation. It is too significant and too influential to be bypassed. It has also successfully defied all attempts by its bigger southern neighbours -Australia and NZ – to bring it to heel and has demonstrated a nimble dexterity to find support wherever it can. What is America to do? It has to act in its own strategic interests. And if that means an accommodation with the Bainimarama regime that is beyond that of its ANZUS partners then so be it.
The Australian spin is that Hilary Clinton’s attendance at the Forum summit underlines US President Barack Obama’s announcement in Canberra last November of Washington’s “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region. Yes, but the real reason is more pressing – a desire to counter and contain the growing influence that America’s global rival, China, has been exerting on the island states. It is not just Fiji that has been subjected to a Chinese charm offensive in the region backed up by wads of cash. Some $600 million dollars in “soft loans” has been showered on several Pacific countries, notably Samoa, and that buys hard influence.
The 15 Pacific leaders who are attending the Rarotonga summit have never had such high level suitors than those arriving to watch from the sidelines as “Dialogue Partners”. As well as the Clinton caravanserai – including US military aircraft that have to be based in neighbouring island states because Rarotonga Airport is so small – the Chinese are sending a high level delegation that reportedly includes one of the country’s vice premiers. And beyond the big suitors come a string of other delegations representing global players such as the European Union, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Canada, Cuba, Israel, Singapore and Taiwan.
All up, some 41 countries keenly interested in the deliberations of fifteen regional players, some of whom – like Niue – have populations that could be sandwiched onto three or four jumbo jets. Yet the real elephant in the room over the next five days will be Frank Bainimarama’s absence. It has all gone on for far too long and Hilary Clinton is in the tiny Cook Islands on behalf of the world’s biggest superpower to start bringing it to a close.