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Storms brewing: Pacific outlook for 2020

Monday 20 January 2020 | Published in Small World


Storms brewing: Pacific outlook for 2020
Many Cook Islanders are looking forward to faster and cheaper internet, with the Manatua One Polynesia fibre-optic cable scheduled to come online in May. 20010808

As a new decade dawns much of the Pacific is grappling with major upheavals from climate and health crises to political disruption and self-determination struggles. In a two part series, RNZ Pacific’s Jamie Tahana and Johnny Blades look at the state of play across the region’s countries and territories and what’s on the cards for 2020. This is the first part.


A 97.7 percent vote for independence in Bougainville’s November referendum is difficult for Papua New Guinea to ignore. But before we can start talking about the world’s newest country, consultations begin between the PNG and Autonomous Bougainville governments to try and map out a way forward with this result. The challenge for PNG’s national parliament, which has the final say, is finding an acceptable transition for Bougainville while ensuring the nation doesn’t disintegrate. Negotiations could be a long process. After the unity and sense of purpose in the referendum, Bougainvilleans will have their patience tested. There's a risk of disgruntled elements stirring tensions if the situation drags on without clarity. Immediate focus is on Bougainville's own regional elections due in mid-2020. There's a developing storm over elements in the region's parliament seeking to change the constitution, basically to extend the term limit to allow president John Momis to go for a third term. Political manoeuvring is heating up, as is interest in the island from foreign mining companies which lurk around the margins of Bougainville's ongoing peace process.

Papua New Guinea

Bougainville is a massive issue for PNG as a nation to get its head around, one which will preoccupy government in particular. It only adds to the sense that it is a make-or-break year for politics in PNG. Prime Minister James Marape - still less than a year into the job - is tasked with no small challenge to forge reform following the end of Peter O'Neill's long stint in charge. It remains to be seen whether a new US$300-million loan from Australia for budgetary support will help PNG's government start to turn around dire public services, stem law and order crises, foster gender equality, rebuild universities and other sectors. But PNG has resources to leverage, and it will be instructive to see how the new leadership handles geopolitical currents as the joint plan with Australia for a naval base on Manus Island proceeds, while the relationship with China grows. Marape has strengthened his coalition, but is also under increasing pressure from his predecessor. O'Neill is determined to grab back power and is using his considerable political guile to undermine Marape politically. Yet the former PM is being pursued with renewed vigour by anti-fraud police on alleged corruption, reinforcing the feeling that another big PNG political crisis, or at least a motion of no-confidence, is just around the corner.


Samoa ended 2019 in tragedy. From October, the country was ravaged by a measles epidemic that has so far claimed the lives of 83 people, most of them children under five. A state of emergency saw schools closed and public gatherings restricted. At its peak, the measles was killing five or six people a day, hospitals and clinics overflowed, some families lost multiple children, while medical staff worked weeks on end to try and contain the spread of the world's most infectious disease. Today, the epidemic is on the wane after a mass vaccination effort, but the ramifications will ring out for some time, as will the public demand for answers to myriad questions over the response to the epidemic and how the country became so vulnerable in the first place. The government has so far resisted calls for an inquiry into the epidemic, with prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi last year saying those who suggested an inquiry showed a “lack of common sense”. For the thousands of families affected by the crisis, that's unlikely to be enough. Many families are still struggling and will be for some time, with growing concerns about mental health services in the wake of the outbreak. In other areas, three people - including the prominent blogger King Faipopo - will stand trial over an alleged plot to assassinate the PM. Also in court, the government looks set to continue its battle with the country's largest church over its pastors' refusal to pay income tax. In an embarrassing blow last year, the case against 20 pastors was thrown out for lack of evidence.

American Samoa

To the east, when the measles first appeared, American Samoa brought in strict quarantine measures. Today, 12 cases have been confirmed, and a state of public emergency has been extended, with a mass vaccination campaign as well as restrictions on public gatherings and at the border. Politically, the territory will go to the polls for governor in November. The gubernatorial elections will be on the same day as the US presidential elections, although American Samoans are unable to vote for president. As a territory, their delegate to congress can't vote either and its people are US nationals, not citizens. However in December, a US court ruled this arrangement illegal, saying American Samoans should be citizens. But American Samoa itself plans to appeal against that, arguing the current arrangement suits it just fine as it allows for self-determination and for Samoan cultural elements to be incorporated into the territory's governance. This debate will no doubt play out for a while yet.


The president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, started the year walking the gilded halls of Beijing’s presidential complex, inspecting a guard of honour side-by-side with China’s president, Xi Jinping. The state visit came only months after the country suddenly and dramatically switched allegiances from Taiwan to China, adding to the dwindling number of Taipei allies and causing a stir among Western powers fretting about Beijing's growing influence. Already, Kiribati has been added to China's tourism list and a range of development projects are under discussion - including the possibility of reopening a satellite tracking station on Tarawa that was closed when Kiribati switched from China to Taiwan in 2003. But the switch hasn't necessarily been popular at home, with people protesting on the streets. The opposition is hoping to seize upon this issue heading into elections later this year. Maamau faces a big challenge to restore confidence in a government whose opponents can point to the erosion of democratic and press freedoms during his term. This was illustrated by the handling of the inquiry into the sinking of the MV Butiraoi which, when finally released, revealed a litany of failures that ultimately killed 95 people.


On 12 September 2019, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, the long-time democracy fighter who eventually became prime minister, died in an Auckland hospital, setting off a wave of mourning. He had been ailing for some time, presciently telling the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in August that it would likely be his last. For decades, Pohiva had been a thorn in the side of Tonga's trenchant establishment, biting at the heels of the monarchy and nobles, and wildly popular with Tongan commoners. But as prime minister, he faced difficulties being a member of the establishment he had spent a lifetime railing against. Parliament had been dissolved in an attempt by the monarchy to have him ousted, but Pohiva only came back stronger. ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s son, Siaosi, narrowly won the by-election for his Tongatapu seat, which he described as an endorsement for ongoing political reform. But it's still unclear whether ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s replacement, Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, will pursue such matters with the same energies as his predecessor, or how he will confront many of Tonga’s mounting challenges - a struggling economy that was ravaged by Cyclone Gita in 2018, high levels of debt, and a growing battle against drug traffickers - let alone navigate the waters between tradition and Tonga's nascent democracy.

West Papua

In 2019, West Papua was gripped by large protests, a security forces crackdown and violent unrest which left dozens dead. The pro-independence protests, sparked by racist harassment of Papuan students in east Java, were the most significant public mobilisations seen for decades in Papua and came amid protracted armed conflict between the West Papua Liberation Army and Indonesia's military forces in the Highlands. The longer this conflict goes on, risk increases of more internal displacement and refugee spillover into neighbouring PNG. The Pacific Forum issued a stronger than usual request for Indonesia to finally allow the UN Human Rights Commissioner's office to come to Papua and report back to Pacific leaders by their 2020 summit. Jakarta’s likely response? Change the focus and keep pushing trade and cultural links with Pacific Islands. Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, will continue to push his agenda of infrastructure and economic development in Papua. Having consolidated his power in national elections, Jokowi, as he is known, could yet address the West Papua rights problem, but few Papuans are getting their hopes up. The expiry of Special Autonomy Status is fast approaching and Papuan leaders within the Indonesian system, frustrated over lack of preparation for what comes next, have appealed to Jakarta to negotiate in good faith.

New Caledonia

A new independence referendum will be held in the French territory in September. It's the second of three referendums possible under the Noumea Accord, and follows the 2018 edition in which a smaller than expected majority voted for the status quo - a result that even French president Emmanuel Macron conceded was a shock. New Caledonia’s independence movement sees the coming months as a critical window to galvanise unity among its various parties, and to mobilise Kanaks for the referendum. On the pro-independence side, divisions remain among key factions still at odds over the territory’s institutional future. Social problems continue amid government efforts to revive a sluggish economy. Recent reform efforts are yet to yield results. New Caledonia’s Congress started the year by approving a comprehensive plan to revive the economy. Yet not everyone’s happy. Hundreds of manufacturers protested outside the congress this month over the proposed liberalisation of the economy.

Marshall Islands

The new decade started with the election of a new president in the Marshall Islands, David Kabua, who beat the incumbent, Hilda Heine, in a vote in parliament. Heine had become a well known presence in the international arena, particularly on the climate change front. At recent UN climate talks in Spain, the Marshalls spearheaded a coalition of vulnerable countries, becoming one of the most vocal advocates for greater ambition. While the talks ultimately ended in disappointment, the Marshalls took the unusual step to convene a press conference to call out the laggards at the talks, which included Australia. Kabua has indicated that the climate fight will not relent under his administration, but he has his work cut out for him on several other fronts. The country is in the grip of a dengue fever emergency that has afflicted thousands and put severe pressure on the country's limited health system.

Newly declassified documents have also revealed the extent of the lingering effects of US nuclear testing, as well as the mounting problem of an eroding dome that's leaking radioactive waste, which the US claims is the Marshall Islands' responsibility. Kabua’s administration will also have to negotiate a new Compact of Free Association with the US (as will Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia). First signed at independence in 1986, the compact guarantees free entry into the US and millions of funding for the Marshalls. It’s set to expire in three years, and Washington had initially maintained that it would not be renewed. Things have changed now, and as the US gets increasingly jittery about China's presence in the region it's now keen to negotiate a new compact. In a November interview, Heine described the geopolitical situation as “really helpful to the cause of the Marshall Islands”.

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 EEZ 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.

Cook Islands

If there’s one development which many Cook Islanders are looking forward to in 2020 it’s faster and cheaper internet, with the Manatua One Polynesia fibre-optic cable scheduled to come online in May. The 3600km long submarine cable will connect Rarotonga and Aitutaki with Niue, Apia in Samoa, and Tahiti and Bora Bora in French Polynesia.

The Cooks is coming off a year of fervent debate about social issues which unearthed some polarised views, including on same-sex law reform and chlorination in the water system. In the political scene, things have been somewhat unsettled since the 2018 election what with by-elections and court cases, leaving a tenuous balance of power for Henry Puna’s government.


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 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 Polynesianfied 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.