Papua New Guinea’s Engagement with Pacific Regionalism

Summary: Since independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea’s identity within the Pacific region has emerged as that of a political and economic friend, particularly to its Melanesian neighbours, albeit with selective and variable engagement in regional affairs. As the largest nation-state in the region, PNG is arguably not as present in the region as it could be, frequently prioritising sovereign interests over its regional relations, with its domestic priorities shaping its approach to regional trade and fisheries. Opportunities to deepen its regional engagement abound and should be pursued given the questionable economic sustainability of PNG’s ad hoc donor-modelled engagement strategy with its smaller Pacific neighbours. PNG’s current chairmanship of the Pacific Islands Forum, its geographical and economic ties to Asia and potential for greater economic development, places the nation in an influential regional leadership role in the longterm. Through the strategic leveraging of these opportunities, PNG could cast lasting influence over the future direction of Pacific regionalism.

PNG’s Regional Engagement – Still finding its feet

Since independence Papua New Guinea has asserted itself as an integral and influential part of the Pacific region. Speaking in 1974, the then Chief Minister Michael Somare told Pacific Leaders gathered in Raratonga, Cook Islands, “We feel our closest ethnic and cultural ties are with the island nations of the South Pacific, and our leading obligations and commitments in international relations are to these nations.” PNG also recognised its strategic place in the broader region as well.

Addressing the Australian Institute of National Affairs, later in 1974, Somare said, “Papua New Guinea is concerned to ensure that her future trade relationship with [Southeast Asia] is in line with the wishes of the other South Pacific Leaders. My country may be able to fill a bridging role between these two regions.”

In these early years the PNG Chief Minister was actively engaged with Pacific Leaders like Hammer De Robert of Nauru, Albert Henry of Cook Islands, Robert Rex of Niue and Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinuú II of
Samoa. Somare also enjoyed a particularly strong relationship with the then-Prime Minister of Fiji Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. When PNG began seeking membership of the South Pacific Forum (as the Pacific Islands
Forum was then known), as early as 1972, it was the Prime Minister of Fiji that Somare began corresponding with to raise the prospect.

PNG was first admitted as a South Pacific Forum Observer in 1973 and granted full membership in 1974. PNG was up front about its expectations: Somare commented that the Forum had “been much talk and little action.” Behind the scenes he was urging fellow Leaders to “take constructive measures to implement some of our previous resolutions.” PNG quickly added its voice to regional discussions on nuclear testing, shipping and fisheries. It also brought new ideas to the table with early discussion papers on technical education training and the environment.

PNG also demonstrated its commitment to the Forum by offering money to assist with building a Forum headquarters in Suva and by offering to pay “almost double its assessed contribution” to the annual budget.

Since the 1970s, however, PNG’s relationships within the Pacific region have waxed and waned in response to domestic challenges and, at times, fractious regional relations. This is not dissimilar from the experience of its Melanesian neighbours, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, who together with PNG were branded as the Melanesian component of the ‘arc of instability’ in the mid- to late-1990s. However, this underscores the fluid sense of connectivity to the region as a whole that PNG has demonstrated over the years, as evidenced by PNG’s leadership push in establishing the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) in 1986.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, PNG’s foreign policy centred on direct bilateral engagement with global superpowers. This may have paid off in the long-term for PNG’s international relations, but perhaps at the expense of some of its relations with its Pacific island neighbours, particularly from the 1990s to mid-2000s. Despite PNG nationals being at the helm of the regional Secretariat from 1980-1982 (Gabriel Gris, Director) and 1998-2004 (W. Noel Levi), these tenures did not appear to have coincided with focused strategies of regional engagement with Pacific neighbours at the time.

Rather, PNG’s regional relations have been fostered through the sharing of its largesse, a practice very much driven by Melanesian principles of generosity and sharing. For example, PNG quickly established itself as a responsible Forum member and friendly neighbour, responding to Vanuatu’s call for military assistance in stemming a separatist movement in 1980.

In 1997, Prime Minister Bill Skate led PNG’s first foray as an aid donor to provide tertiary scholarships to Solomon Islanders.

In the mid-2000s, Prime Minister Somare sanctioned the provision of disaster relief to Fiji (2008), a practice continued by Prime Minister O’Neill with post-disaster support to Samoa (2012), Solomon Islands (2013) and Vanuatu (2015). Most recently fuelled by PNG’s economic growth from developing liquefied natural gas resources (LNG), PNG’s increasing actions as a regional ‘donor’ have extended to supporting Fiji’s 2014 elections, fully funded scholarships to PNG’s universities for citizens of Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and offers of assistance to the smaller island states of the region to establish their own joint secretariat. One could also add that as a fisheries-rich nation, PNG has also shared this largesse with its neighbours through the former arrangements of the US Tuna Treaty.

Despite relatively responsible regional citizenry, PNG is arguably still not fully present in the region and has often asserted an independence from Pacific regionalism. PNG has not always found political convergence with the Forum collective. Perceived politico-cultural bias within the Forum to its Polynesian states led to the first formal political sub-regional grouping by Melanesian states in 1988. Often described as borne out of a frustration in relation to protracted intra-regional trade negotiations, PNG’s leadership in establishing the Melanesian Spearhead Group of states led to significant advances in sub-regional trade relations and has been a successful trading bloc model for the region. Since 1982, PNG’s active support for the Parties to the Nauru Agreement in relation to fisheries has also demonstrated PNG’s pragmatic foreign policy in relation to multi-lateral issues.

A footprint on the region’s economic development

Notwithstanding the variability in its regional relations, as the largest Pacific island state, PNG is a key player in the region’s economic development. The significant long-term revenues from the agriculture and fisheries sector, as well as the expansion of PNG’s private sector across the region, such as the Bank of the South Pacific, and widespread direct investment in Pacific island states demonstrate PNG’s increasingly important role in the region’s economic affairs. There is no doubt that PNG’s donor-styled engagement in the region is significantly correlated to its resources boom and a widening footprint in the region’s economic landscape. However, as for any aid donor, such a regional engagement strategy will be constrained by domestic economic downturns.

Credible macroeconomic policy will assist in PNG’s sustained role as development partner in the region, if that indeed remains its primary strategy for regional relations going forward. PNG has significant economic potential, especially in the terms of a large and young labour force, which augurs well for improving competitiveness. The focus on internal mobilisation of labour across productive sectors, up-skilling human capital, social inclusion (including economic empowerment of women) and a stable macro-economy are key immediate challenges in PNG’s quest for higher potential economic growth and prosperity, and in turn its ability to sustain its regional engagement strategy as an emerging donor and interlocutor.

Development of Regional Productive Sectors and Supply Chains

In addition, the development of regional productive sectors, such as fisheries through a Pacific Marine Industrial Zone (PMIZ), coupled with readily available business sector enablers and transport logistics to the world’s most dynamic and largest markets, would place PNG as the hub of the region’s fisheries processing centre. Forum Leaders have called for increased economic returns in fisheries for the region; the development of a vibrant regional fisheries industry by increasing regional processing of key marine products, such as tuna, by 2020, would greatly assist the realisation of this goal.

This in turn could create additional value-adding, generates new jobs, develops an array of allied industries for the Pacific island region, and simultaneously, enhances the inter-connectedness of the region. Such regional initiatives to improve economic returns from regional resources provides a panacea for creation of similar supply chains and/or product linkages across the Forum island countries. For instance, the potential for PNG coffee and cocoa to be used in growing consumer and tourism markets, such as Fiji, Cook Islands and Palau, thus diversifying and expanding the market for PNG coffee and cocoa exporters.

A Bridge to Asia

As the only Pacific island economy to be a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), as well as a long-time observer – and member-in-waiting – of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), PNG is well-positioned to play an important role in bridging the Pacific and Asian regions that other Forum Members do not, or cannot, play. At the 22nd ASEAN meeting in Malaysia, PNG declared itself a champion for the Pacific region, including the small developing states, to ensure greater connectivity on issues of common interest. In 2015, PNG was also Chair of the 13th Southwest Pacific Dialogue (SPD), a forum for dialogue between the nations of Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, PNG, New Zealand and Timor-Leste. In 2018, PNG will host the APEC Summit, a first for Pacific island states. The exclusion of the smaller economies of the Pacific Islands Forum in these inter-regional fora provides the space for Papua New Guinea to nurture its Pacific relations through championing regional causes.

With such a unique connection to Asia, PNG has the potential to be the main Pacific broker for enhanced trade and economic relations for the small developing states; something that Pacific rim countries have not yet facilitated (for example, the Trans Pacific Partnership circumvents the Pacific island region and potentially increases trade barriers for small island developing states). In this regard, PNG’s role in the region extends far beyond that of a friendly neighbour and emergent donor. PNG’s economic connectedness (through trade, economic and financial linkages) with Pacific island states (especially with the larger Melanesian countries and, in turn, their connectedness to smaller island states) forms a gateway to Asian economies.

Facilitating Inter-connectedness

PNG can play an important role in facilitating the transport logistics and enabling environment for meaningful private sector development in the Pacific region. PNG’s private sector and transport network through its national airline, Air Niugini, has the potential to be an important enabler of improved inter-connectedness to the Asian tourism market by marketing multi-country packages, a vision that Forum Economic Ministers have supported in the future development regional tourism. The experience of Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau and Vanuatu has shown a direct and strong correlation between transport logistics and economic value creation and prosperity in these tourism driven economies. Recently, Air Niugini has entered into discussions with a number of Forum island countries in extending its route across the Northern and Eastern Pacific. Establishment of these extended air linkages will provide significant impetus and interest for trade and investment through niche industries, primarily tourism and associated industries.

Championing political concerns

Aside from the economic bridge to Asia, diplomatic relationships with countries in Asia represents an opportunity for PNG to be an effective champion of a wide range of Pacific interests and concerns. Of particular significance is its relationship with Indonesia and its experience of the complexities of the West Papua region of Indonesia. Having extensive experience of discussions with Indonesia about the treatment of Melanesians living in West Papua, PNG is well-placed to guide the region in efforts to bring greater pressure to bear on Indonesia with regard to alleged human rights violations in West Papua.

It is particularly timely that PNG currently serves as Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum when the Forum has made its most explicit statement to date of its expectations that the human rights of Melanesians living in West Papua be fully respected. (Indeed many attribute the fact of this statement to PNG’s chairmanship.) In the event that PNG’s term as Forum Chair concludes before an acceptance by Indonesia of the Forum’s request to undertake a fact-finding mission in West Papua, PNG has underscored its commitment to continue to play a key role in advancing the Forum’s engagement on this issue.

PNG and the future for Pacific Regionalism

In recent times, PNG has particularly demonstrated that its sovereign interests are worth more than its regional interests, highlighting its capricious regional policy. The tendency to assert its political strength bilaterally, such as in regional fisheries negotiations and its withdrawal from the regional Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations with the European Union (while at the same time holding Chairmanship of the negotiating bloc), suggest that PNG is still realising its full potential as a regional leader.

PNG has the potential to be a great regional leader, but for various reasons its own missed opportunities send a signal that it is still not fully present in the region. Regional leadership will require much more than tenuous donor-style engagement and a more multi-faceted regional engagement strategy.

The Framework for Pacific Regionalism

It’s an opportunity for Forum Members to demonstrate a renewed commitment to regionalism.

The Framework sets out a process for identifying regional priorities via a process of political dialogue and settlement, and touches on issues of the pooling of sovereignty and resource sharing. As the current Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum (2015-16), as well as through its regional leadership on economic and Pacific Rim politics (particularly with Asia), PNG can play an active role to advance Pacific regionalism under the Framework, and has already begun to be an advocate for the region’s political priorities.

In 2015, as the Chair of the first Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting where regional priorities identified through the Framework were discussed, Prime Minister O’Neill demonstrated PNG’s regional leadership in brokering a political settlement on five priorities: fisheries, climate change, information and communication technology (ICT), cervical cancer and West Papua.

Beyond Forum Chairmanship, PNG can continue to play a strong advocacy role in support of regional positions articulated through the Framework. PNG, for instance, advocated strongly for the positions of the Pacific Islands during the COP 21 Meeting, and, by virtue of its size and resources, is well-placed to support progress on the Forum Leaders decision to increase economic returns on fisheries.

Elsewhere, as an increasingly ‘present’ Forum Member, PNG can advocate for Forum Leaders’ decisions in other fora, such as at the United Nations General Assembly, APEC and in its representation at other regional meetings. PNG can also leverage its various regional and international relationships to deepen the practice of regionalism in the Pacific. PNG has well-established links to the Asia-Pacific through its membership to APEC and its entrenched bilateral ties with large Asian countries such as China and Japan.

Through these relationships, PNG is well positioned to advocate for Pacific access to Asian markets, for instance.

Papua New Guinea’s prominent position as a member of sub-regional bodies such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Parties to the Nauru Agreement also presents opportunities to establish consistency or
complementarity between regional and sub-regional activities.

Into the future, PNG can continue to support the Pacific in its regional efforts by capitalising on its diplomatic assets and geopolitical position.

This requires a level of foreign policy ambition on the part of PNG’s leadership, as well as arguably a continuation of the resource rents arising from the domestic activities (including the export of LNG) if it wishes to continue to pursue its current strategy as regional donor.

PNG’s appetite for leading regionalism will depend largely on the extent to which domestic challenges (such as the imminent question of Bougainville’s status) will absorb national attention, as well as the relevance of regional measures to addressing these national challenges. However, opportunities to cultivate PNG’s brand of regionalism abound. How much is PNG ready to commit to Pacific regionalism?

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