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By Jared Koli
Pacific regionalism is described as a double-edged sword used to carve the region while at the same time wounding its peoples.
A doctoral researcher in Politics, Diplomacy and International Affairs at The University of the South Pacific’s (USP) School of Government, Development and International Affairs (SGDIA), George Hoa’au echoed this statement in an interview with Wansolwara.
“The thing that we say will work for us is also not going to work for us, but we choose to – it’s a marriage of convenience between states,” Hoa’au said.
He said national interest was a number one challenge to genuine regional co-operation. For instance, it rears its head when it comes to appointing heads of Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP), he says.
“We only talk about it in different Pacific ways over kava, betelnut and tea. It’s overarching, countries’ regional positions are informed by ethnicity and identity politics.
“All these are present in regional cooperation. It’s a double edged because we are using it to carve a region that we would like to have, but in carving a region which we would like to have, we are also cutting ourselves.”
Hoa’au, whose area of research focuses on Pacific Regional Governance and Legitimacy, holds a Masters in International Law from the Australia National University (ANU), and held top posts in the Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Health for more than a decade.
He said politics of different ethnic groups came into play in regional co-operation.
“If you look at these specialised agencies in the region, for example, the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO), some observed that the head is always from a sub-regional representation because they believe they are tourism-oriented people and have better tourism products to sell,” he said.
“The politics of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia will always be that, which informs the underlining dynamics of regional co-operation. Of course, there is the geo-political factor. But regional geo-politics play to regional bilateral invitation. And the role that Fiji plays as that regional hub is still there.
“Look at USP, some staff sympathised that for teaching assistant positions. It used to be a challenge for regional students to take these up. There are some changes been seen and more needs to be done.
“The challenge some argue lies with local immigration policy. The prerogative lies, in my view with USP, to work on practical alternatives with all of its member countries,” Hoa’au said.
He said Fiji was always good in strategically playing its role as a regional hub.
“They played it very well and use that to their advantage. There are a lot of good lessons that regional countries can learn from Fiji,” Hoa’au said.
When asked why bigger members had the loudest voice or benefited the most when it came to regional arrangements and agreements at the expense of smaller players,Hoa’au said not everyone was small or big when looking at the group of regional architects holistically.
He said the relevancy of who participated within regional co-operation was informed by those who had an advantage on that subject.
“This does not mean only certain countries in the Pacific benefit from regional cooperation; it’s actually not that. You need to look at the subject. Regional co-operation has always favoured the prepared, and who has an advantage on that issue.
“If it’s on agricultural products, obviously it’s for people who have land. If it comes to tuna, it’s on those who own fish. Kiribati does not have an advantage on agricultural products, but it has an advantage of tuna. Vanuatu has an advantage of agriculture but it does not have an advantage on tuna.
“Whatever the issue when it becomes a regional agenda, whoever engages on it is informed by who has an advantage on that. Those who can leverage their national interest regionally will always come on top,” he said.
Hoa’au said the nature of the subject, not only those who were talking too much, but those who remained silent, was also saying something about its position in regional cooperation.
“Silence and voice have a story in regional cooperation. One has to learn to listen if each can be of value to regional co-operation,” he said.
“It depends on the sectoral advantage that the country has, bigger countries with bigger land mass, their trade sector is huge compared to smaller island countries. They have export products such as extractive industry, forest and agriculture products.
“It’s not just the stages of their economic development, it’s the nature of the size of their countries, their sea resource, the advantage that they have and how they contribute to regional co-operation.”
Meanwhile, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is the region’s premier political and economic policy organisation, which comprises 18 members, including Australia and New Zealand. PIF acts as CROP’s permanent chair and provides secretariat support. There are currently eight CROP agencies.
There are also other sub-regional bodies in the Pacific such as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) – a grouping of eight ‘tuna‐rich’ Pacific Island states and Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) consisting of five Melanesian countries spearheading sub-regional issues of common interest.
Solomon Islands Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, Jeremiah Manele said regionalism gave a country a greater opportunity for greater collaboration and partnership, that is why working as a region was very important.
Manele said regionalism meant sharing common values, and therefore, needed the unwavering commitment from all countries towards achieving that common goal.
When it comes to trade, we have the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) and Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus, which includes Australia and New Zealand.
“We are signatories to PACER Plus, which we hope to ratify by June this year. We need to put those arrangements first and work with the private sector so that we can produce products to sell. Regionalism in these trading arrangements is very important because it enables our farmers, our traders be part of regional value chain and global value chain in terms of participating in the global trade,” he told Wansolwara in an interview during the recent Trade Ministers meeting in Suva.
Manele said trade diplomacy and having the right people with the right skills to negotiate for Solomon Islands, and our region was important.
Fiji’s Minister for Trade Premila Kumar said Fiji could trade on its own while also working with other Pacific Island countries as a collective trading bloc in the world economy.
Speaking at a high-level panel discussing Pacific Trading Nations on the theme “Surviving to Thriving” at USP Laucala campus recently,Kumar explained that Fiji’s development is at a more advanced stage than some smaller island developing states and while there is support for a Pacific trading bloc, there is also room to surge ahead on its own.
“If you look at our trade statistics, it speaks for itself so we cannot be tied down with other regional trade agreements. I believe that the regional region needs to re-look at itself because we are not homogenous, each country is not the same, our needs are different, we are at different stages of development.”
Meanwhile,Hoa’au said to be an effective partner in regional co-operation, countries have to engage in ‘smart diplomacy’.
“You must know what will you take, bargain with and trade for certain relations. You engage with people that you will get something from. But then, when you engage in smart diplomacy, you need smart strategical thinkers to inform policy.
“Smart strategic thinking is hard work, and to make sure we have a smart economy or smart diplomacy, we need smart people. Regionalism needs people who can think about solutions, think about new ideas because the number one problem in regionalism is the thinking problem.
“We cannot solve the current problems around regional co-operation with the same thinking we use when we created regional co-operation. We will need a heavy dosage of futuristic thinking to inform our current regional quest for solutions.”
Hoa’au said Fijians had been very strategic play their role in the region. And by being very strategic, their economy not only develop around that strategic alignment of national interest against regional interest, but they have developed that respect as a regional leader.
“They developed that over time and for a lot of us who are the periphery in the region, that’s a challenge. The question for those at the periphery is, how do you want to develop your peripheral presence that can attract a regional interest,” he said.
Hoa’au also has double post-graduate diplomas in security from the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, and trade policy and negotiation from World Trade Organisation Institute in Geneva, Switzerland.
He is the newly-appointed deputy director general of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Secretariat in Port Villa, Vanuatu, having signed his contract on February 14 this year. However, views expressed here are his own and does not represent MSG in anyway.
*Jared Koli (Solomon Islands) is a third-year journalism student at The University of the South Pacific’s Laucala campus. He is also the student Editor for the USP Journalism Programme’s student training newspaper and online publications, Wansolwara.
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