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Pacific looks for leadership in 2020

Wednesday 22 January 2020 | Published in Small World


Pacific looks for leadership in 2020
The new decade started with a somewhat bizarre caricature of a Polynesianfied Jacinda Ardern on the cover of Islands Business, named its “Pacific person of the year”. 20012004

Some of the Pacific’s leaders face big challenges this year, as the climate crisis, corruption allegations and regional loyalties clash. In the second of a two-part series, RNZ Pacific’s Jamie Tahana and Johnny Blades look at some of the region’s bigger players and the tensions looming in 2020.

Solomon Islands

The watershed political development in 2019 in Solomon Islands was the country's switch from diplomatic relations with Taiwan to China. The decision, coming after 36 years of tight relations with Taipei, garnered significant international attention and was the subject of much angst among the country’s parliamentarians although the former prime minister Rick Hou said the move was ‘pre-determined’.

Following elections last year, Manasseh Sogavare succeeded Hou for his fourth stint as prime minister. He enters this year with the familiar stern challenge of maintaining majority support in a fragmented parliament. It will take every ounce of his political savvy to keep the various groups in his coalition happy, but lucrative grants and loans offered by China are expected to help fill the gap left by the end of Taiwanese funding, most of which went straight to MPs.

However, frustration over the lack of consultation about the switch remains raw, particularly in Malaita Province where the premier has publicly denounced the government's decision and at one point threatened to form a breakaway state. What could prove most destabilising in 2020 is if China’s version of aid doesn't match up with the expectations of the MPs who supported Sogavare in the switch.


It’s still early days in the new-look government of Lionel Aingimea. Nauru is perhaps the staunchest of Taiwan’s four remaining allies in the Pacific, and Ingimea has said they are concerned about China's increasing presence in the islands region. Congratulating Taiwan on the re-election of President Tsai Ing-Wen, Nauru's government said it looked forward to continuing to stand up for democracy across the world. But on its own shores, Nauru's justice system has seen fit to sentence the last 12 of the ‘Nauru 19’ group, critics of government, for up to 11 months.


Tuvalu’s international runway is more often a sports field than an airfield, the only open stretch of land on Funafuti that catches a breeze, with only three flights a week.

But in August, it was abuzz as thousands of people flooded into the country for what would be a fractious and at times bizarre Pacific Islands Forum summit.

Tuvalu is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and then-prime minister Enele Sopoaga had hoped to draw attention to the plight faced by the region and galvanise action against it. But then things fell apart.

During a leaders’ meeting that extended long into the night, talks nearly fell apart multiple times amid fierce clashes, ‘Akilisi Pohiva broke down in tears, and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison maintained his ‘red lines’ over climate and coal. The Pacific's leaders left Tuvalu bitter and disappointed.

Sopoaga was removed when parliament elected a new prime minister following September’s election. But the new prime minister, Kausea Natano, has so far trodden a similar path. Tuvalu will continue to advocate for greater climate action, and it will remain steadfast in its support of Taiwan.


Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama will continue to be a tireless campaigner for international action on climate change. At the recent COP25, as Fiji touted the Pacific Blue pact, aimed at reducing 40 percent emissions from domestic shipping fleets, Bainimarama announced his country was “taking steps to chart a different future for the oceans”.

On this path, Fiji is putting climate action and ocean conservation front and centre of its energies. His government says that at least 30 percent of Fiji's exclusive economic zone will be declared protected areas by 2030.

On the home front however, the outlook for Bainimarama’s leadership and his ruling Fiji First Party is less clear. The former military strongman has been running the country for almost a decade and a half. This year is Bainimarama’s sixth as an elected leader, but he is still not entirely comfortable with the concept of a parliament where others may disagree with his views and engage in debate.

The prime minister’s unfortunate physical exchange with opposition MP Pio Tikoduadua outside parliament last August was an example of this. As to who the prime minister may square off against this year, the drawcard is yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, the main opposition party, SODELPA, is steadily preparing for the 2022 election, hoping it can build on 2018’s result when Bainimarama only won narrowly. SODELPA’s commitment to protecting the foundations of indigenous Fijian culture remains its core policy guide, something that leaves it prone to attacks by Fiji First, which claims to be the government for all ethnicities.


With elections scheduled for March, Charlot Salwai is about to pull off that rare feat in Vanuatu politics – serve a full term as prime minister. Some of the political reforms his government promised early in the piece are yet to come to fruition.

Beyond the polls it’s not clear that Salwai will stay in power. However, his Reunification of Movements for Change party has strengthened its numbers and stands a decent chance of being at the core of a new government which, as ever in Vanuatu, will be a coalition stitched together by intensive horse-trading among MPs following the election.

While some of the older parties may be fighting for relevance in this election, ones to watch include younger groupings such as the Vanuatu Leaders Party and the Graon mo Jastis Pati.

What Vanuatu needs is some women MPs. Although it is not the only country in the Pacific to have parlous levels of female representation in politics, Vanuatu’s MPs must sooner or later take steps to change this, and a new government with a fresh mandate should be proactive on this front.

This year promises to be an intriguing year for regional politics in which Vanuatu should play a key role. It is to host the Pacific Islands Forum, where West Papua and climate change will be catapulted to the top of the agenda.

If last year’s Forum was tough, it's not going to get any easier for Australia in 2020. And as Forum chair, Vanuatu’s government will look to apply regional pressure on Indonesia to make good on its claim that it is part of the Pacific ‘family’ by finally opening up Papua to independent human rights monitors.

Vanuatu is also due for a stint as chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), where divisions among members over how to confront the Papua issue have stultified the grouping's dynamic in recent years.

Vanuatu is keen to reinvigorate the MSG by re-committing its members to the group’s founding aim of decolonisation of all Melanesian peoples. One of the options is a review of Indonesia’s position as associate MSG member.


The country which has made global headlines for its conservationist policies in recent years is expected to continue along this path. Palau’s advocacy for regional marine conservation efforts is starting to gain traction at the regional level.

Despite its small size, Palau is an important geopolitical spot to watch, particularly with an election scheduled for 2020. The Tommy Remengesau-led government is standing firm, for now, as an ally of Taiwan.

Because of this, China banned its tourists visiting the country. It hasn’t stopped Palau’s tourism numbers steadily growing. Meanwhile, tourists coming to Palau are now advised to first ditch their toxic sunscreen, in another example of a country taking control of its own narrative.

French Polynesia

Another year and another attempt by former president Gaston Flosse to re-enter politics. Last year he and the current president Edouard Fritch were convicted and fined for abusing public funds, just the latest in a string of corruption-related court cases the former has been implicated in.

The 88-year-old Flosse, who is seeking to re-enter politics in March's municipal elections, had his voter application rejected last month and has lodged an appeal. Flosse's dealings continue to cast a long shadow over not just the Tahoeraa Huiraatira party but French Polynesia’s loyalist political scene. The opposition’s Oscar Temaru is awaiting an appeal court ruling over last year’s conviction for exercising undue influence – his first ever conviction.

Meanwhile, French Polynesia’s opposition is looking to challenge the territory’s new mining code in France’s highest administrative court. The law was adopted as an Australian company, Avenir Makatea, seeks a permit to resume mining on Makatea and extract 6.5 million tonnes of phosphate over 27 years.

The economy is still sluggish as the government keep failing to see the launch of much-touted mega-projects, such as the Tahitian Village and the Chinese fish farm on Hao atoll, both of which have for years promised thousands of jobs.

While foreign interest in the territory’s resources remains keen, France refuses to engage with the UN over the decolonisation of French Polynesia, which in 2013 was added by the UN General Assembly to its decolonisation list. French President Emmanuel Macron is due to visit Tahiti in April and host the next One Planet Summit.


Tokelau’s leaders are hoping for a controversy-free 2020 after the local administration came under scrutiny over a series of holes in its fiscal spending in recent years.

The latest was a missing $US6.6m brought to the attention of New Zealand’s Auditor-General. New Zealand provides Tokelau with around $8.6m in aid each year, and the need for better documentation process has been well highlighted by the auditing gaps.

Meanwhile, Tokelau’s village councils are considering a site for a runway on the atolls, reviving controversial plans for air services to the territory.


Niue’s long-serving premier, Sir Toke Talagi, spent great tracts of time off the island seeking medical treatment in 2019. Still, that’s not holding him back as he plans to stand again in this year's elections.

Meanwhile, getting hooked up to the Manatua One Polynesia fibre-optic cable later this year is to be a boon for Niueans desperate for better internet services.


So far, Australia's Pacific ‘step-up’ has been more of a drunken stumble. The region’s largest country and biggest donor managed to get offside with nearly every Pacific Island country last year – with meetings that descended into shouting matches, a deputy prime minister who said Pacific people could “pick fruit”, and being called out as the “black sheep” of the Pacific in front of the world's media.

For Canberra, 2020 will be about trying to cut down on the blunders while trying to consolidate the precarious position of describing itself as vuvale (Fijian for family) while continuing to be the world's largest coal exporter and inveterate climate action laggard.

Sure, the Pacific step-up has seen an increase in aid and infrastructure spending, a massive loan to Papua New Guinea, revitalised labour schemes, new patrol boats, and a development initiative.

But for many Pacific governments that means little when the government struggles to acknowledge – or at the very least to support – the countries in their fight against climate change. That reared its head at both the Pacific Islands Forum (with both Frank Bainimarama and Enele Sopoaga accusing Morrison of displaying a neo-colonial attitude and alienating Pacific leaders) and in Spain for COP 25 when the Marshall Islands called out Australia as one of the countries trying to derail strengthened commitments to reduce emissions.

Fiji’s Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said: “You have some black sheep members in the family, and of course, you can have differences but we hope we can get some rationality with the Australian thought process”. He’s not the only one.

New Zealand

Compared with step-up, New Zealand’s Pacific “reset” is going swimmingly, but that’s a low bar to clear.

The new decade started with a somewhat bizarre caricature of a Polynesian-fied Jacinda Ardern on the cover of Islands Business, named its “Pacific person of the year”. Aside from Guam’s Lou Leon Guerrero, Ardern is the only female head of government in the region. Her government has increased its presence and aid to the region, and launched a number of schemes, but without the financial heft of any of the other powers, the reset is relying heavily on relationships.

The government has passed a zero carbon act and a number of other policies on climate change, but Pacific leaders have been clear that while the right things are being said, a “wait and see” approach is being taken. If the action doesn't meet the rhetoric, then it won't be long until New Zealand's back to being lumped in with Australia in the eyes of the Pacific's leaders.

With 2020 being an election year in New Zealand, there may yet be more regional re-setting to come if the government changes. The main opposition National Party has been highly critical of the changes to the aid programme under the reset, as well as the extra funding of the foreign ministry. RNZ