Stagnant And Faltering Self-Determination Efforts In The Pacific – Analysis


By Tess Newton Cain

Issues of sovereignty and self-determination continue to loom large in strategic imaginations across the Pacific. In 2023, numerous developments added to an already complex environment. 

In Bougainville, Attorney-General Ezekiel Massat is pushing ahead to design a constitution for a new country following the overwhelming vote for independence in the 2019 referendum. Yet it is not clear whether any real progress is being made on the talks between the Autonomous Bougainville Government and the Papua New Guinean Government. The results of the referendum are yet to be tabled in the PNG parliament as required under the terms of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. The Bougainville leadership has called for a moderator to assist in moving these processes along.

In New Caledonia, 2023 was fraught with failed attempts to bring together the French government, the New Caledonian loyalists and the Kanaky independence groups. All of this has taken place in the shadow of a military build-up by France. The year ended with France announcing significant constitutional changes for New Caledonia including the controversial addition of more non-Indigenous residents to the electoral roll.

The cause of self-determination in West Papua was dealt a significant blow with the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s decision to reserve membership for independent countries, except for the Front de Liberation Kanak et Socialiste of New Caledonia. The subsequent appointment of the prime ministers of Fiji and Papua New Guinea as special envoysto liaise with Indonesia about West Papua made for a moderately favourable announcement but whether it proves fruitful remains to be seen.

Late in the year, Tuvalu and Australia signed the Falepili Union on the margins of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Cook Islands. In exchange for a pathway to residency in Australia, the Natano government granted Australia a veto over future agreements with other partners on anything with a security dimension. With Tuvalu’s recent elections, a change of government could mean this agreement looks very different or ceases to exist at all.

The issue of Pacific regionalism continues to be vexed and delicately poised. The PIF has garnered increased attention from external partners, including a ‘re-engaged’ United States. This constitutes a somewhat belated recognition of the centrality of the forum. This is also reflected in the subtle name change of the convocation of Pacific leaders with President Biden. It is now called the US–Pacific Islands Forum Summit and is expected to meet every two years. 

This goes a small way to countering criticisms of the Partners of the Blue Pacific initiative which was seen by many as a Washington-led attempt to circumvent the regional architecture.

Yet the regionalism project struggles to be relevant at the national level and so the deluge of bilateral engagements is unlikely to subside any time soon. While this can bring benefits, such as the Sogavare government’s marshalling of support for the hugely successful Pacific Games, it also brings significant transaction costs for small administrations.

The change of government in Fiji that brought Sitiveni Rabuka back to the prime ministership marked something of a change in foreign policy rhetoric. Rabuka has been at pains to praise countries such as Australia that were so often the target of criticism by his predecessor Frank Bainimarama. But a much-vaunted repudiation of a policing agreement with China has been walked back and is yet to eventuate.

Another significant bilateral agreement in 2023 was between Papua New Guinea and the United States. This agreement provides for the strengthening of the Papua New Guinean defence force and allows for the future deployment of US troops into the country.

The meeting of PIF Leaders in Cook Islands revealed that unity of purpose and direction is still a work in progress. A walkout by the Nauru delegation was considered of little consequence by the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands and PIF Chair Mark Brown. It is evident that the selection of Nauru’s Baron Waqa as the next Secretary-General continues to be a thorn in the side of some members. 

At a substantive level, the issue of deep-sea mining has already highlighted significant differences among PIF member states. The dispute is likely to be further ventilated at the upcoming talanoa on the topic that leaders have scheduled for 2024, but is unlikely to occur before the regional leadership meets next in Tonga. While some countries, notably Cook Islands and Nauru, are keen to move ahead in this sphere, others such as Vanuatu and the Federated States of Micronesia continue to voice their opposition to digging up the seabed.

Across the world, democracy is in retreat and the Pacific has not been exempt from its impact. The wholesale acceptance of Westminster-style democracy has eluded many of the countries in the Pacific since they emerged from the shackles of colonialism. In 2023, there were further concerns relating to judicial independence and the rule of law in Kiribati where the local media struggles to get information from the government and is unwelcoming of foreign journalists. 

In Vanuatu, prolonged periods of instability have disrupted the legislative programme and undermined the faith of the community in the ability of members of parliament to see beyond self-interest. Meanwhile, groups of traditional leaders from Fiji and Vanuatu have been courted by China in recognition of the influence that they can wield both socially and politically.

The Pacific cannot hope to move forward without first recognising the lessons of history. By understanding historical narratives in the region, we can better contextualise current and future developments.  

  • About the author: Tess Newton-Cain is Senior Research Fellow in the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.
  • Source: This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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