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Assessing the Strategic

Implications of the Pacific Island


Development Forum (PIDF)
Guest: Gregory Poling
Affiliation: Pacific Partners Initiative, CSIS
Published: September 9, 2014

Last year, you said that Fiji had clearly failed
to win over its neighbors in the face of an
aggressive campaign against the Pacific
Island Development Forum (PIDF) by
Australia. As evidence, you cited the fact
that only three heads of states attended the
event. However, nine leaders from Pacific
Island countries attended this years event.
And, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono delivered the keynote address. In
response, you changed your assessment on
the PIDF, now calling it a rapid success. In
retrospect, were you surprised by how
quickly the PIDF was able to establish itself
as a viable regional institution? And, what do
you think were the key factors that enabled
Suva to overcome the diplomatic challenges
posed by Canberra?

I was certainly surprised by the speed with
which the PIDF came into its own - though I
expected that it would find increasing success
over time. The PIDF clearly fills a need in the
Pacific by responding to calls for greater
inclusivity that the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)
has so far ignored. By prominently inviting-in
civil society, academic, development, and
business voices, the PIDF offers the potential for
a broader, more innovative discussion on the
development needs in the region.
The PIDFs success also sends a strong
message to big donors - primarily Australia and
the United States - that showing up to the PIF
with a preset list of announced initiatives -
determined without much input from developing
island states - is no longer good enough. The
PIF still is, and will remain for the foreseeable
future, the preeminent leaders meeting in the
Pacific. But, the PIDFs success should serve as
a wake-up call that (the PIF) must adapt.

To that point, there are concerns that the PIF
might not be able to adapt. What are your
thoughts? Do you think that the PIF is worth
saving? Or, should it be abandoned in favor
of a new alternative?

I think the PIF is worth saving. There is a certain
amount of hysteria in some quarters that the PIF
is on its last leg. But, I see no evidence of that
fact. While more Pacific leaders are attending
the PIDF, they are not skipping the PIF. They
are clearly still investing significant amount of
political capital in the PIF. They recognize that
it's their best opportunity to get face-to-face
discussions with Australian leaders, New
Zealand leaders, and high-ranking State
Department officials. They also see it as a place
where marquis development and aid programs
typically are promoted and announced by the
West. However, the PIF still needs to adapt to a
changing regional environment. It must become
more responsive to the Pacific Islands nations
and be less of a talk shop.

Gregory Poling is a Fellow at the Pacific
Partners Initiative of the Center for Strategic &
International Studies in Washington DC.

Interviews

Pacific Islands Society | Interviews | September 9, 2014
In opening this years PIDF, Prime Minister
Frank Bainimarama (Fiji) made a veiled
reference to one of the perceived
shortcomings of the PIF when he said that
the Pacific Island Countries needed to come
up with solutions through genuine
consultation with development partners. Of
course, Bainimarama is not the first leader to
characterize Australia and its partners as
bullies when it comes to development aid.
But, he is the first Pacific Island leader to go
so far as to establish a rival institution to
challenge their influence. So, do you think
charge Bainimaramas is warranted? And, if
so, do you think that the PIF needs to be
reformed in order to ensure that the recipient
countries have more of a voice in
consultations?

I think there is some truth to Bainimarama's
claim that the Pacific Island nations have not
been involved in the decisions regarding aid
from Australia and also from observer nations
like the United States. The fact that the PIDF has
so much resonance in the Pacific Islands and
the fact that so many Pacific leaders have
agreed to attend this year shows that these
countries have been thinking it as well. And, as
you pointed out, Bainimarama is not the first to
bring-up this charge.

It is a bit overblown, I think, because of Fijis
domestic politics. It serves Bainimarama
purpose to set-up Australia as a punching bag.
But, that doesnt mean that the United States or
Australia should be complacent. It's no longer
enough for delegations from Washington to
show up with a plan already in place for a
handful of new aid programs when they havent
actually consulted the needs of the Pacific
Islands nations. This highlights the fact that the
PIF needs to be more than just regional leaders
and State Department officials in the room.

Aside from the issue of consultation, another
factor that appears to be driving support for
the PIDF is the fact that Australia and its
partners do not appear committed to
addressing climate change. As you pointed
out in your recent analysis, some of the key
donor states behind the PIF happen to be
the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
And, it doesnt help that Australias decision
to repeal its carbon tax is already
contributing to a significant rise in domestic
carbon emissions. With some Pacific Island
countries facing climate relocation, what
does this mean for the long-term influence of
PIF donor states in the Pacific Islands
Region? And, are there ways for Australia
and its partners to appease the Pacific Island
countries without imposing stricter
regulations on their own domestic carbon
emissions?

In the last two years in particular, I think climate
change and related issues like ocean health
have become such a centerpiece of the PIF that
it is now the number one issue. It is the only
existential threat to low lying Pacific Island
nations. So, for Australia to think that it can
completely dismantle its climate change
legislation and then not have that backlash from
the region, that is just laughable.

Clearly, the Obama administration is in a bit of a
better position due to the recent announcement
of EPA caps on power plant emissions. But, it's
only the first step. Pacific Island nations will
demand more. I dont think it is possible moving
forward to assuage Pacific anger with other
kinds of aid while making no effort to really
tackle climate change.

We have spoken a lot about Australia and
its partners. But, its important to also
consider the United States as its own actor.
From your perspective, has the success of
the PIDF measurably impacted the American
policy approach to Fiji? And, what is your
current outlook for Fiji-US relations?

Pacific Islands Society | Interviews | September 9, 2014
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The American approach towards Fiji remains
very cautious. And, there's been little evidence
from senior officials that Washington has really
made a decision about which direction it is
going to go moving forward. Even when it
comes to the issue of election observers being
sent to Fiji at Suva's invitation, Washington has
been far more cautious than Canberra. In a
sense, this reflects the fact that the Pacific
Islands is still not nearly as important for
Washington as it is for Canberra or Wellington
even though the United States has become
more engaged with the Pacific Islands over the
last few years than it has been in recent
memory.

The biggest thing that is going to affect the
American policy towards Fiji is not going to be
the PIDF. Nor is it going to be Fiji's growing
clout in the region. It will be the elections this
month. If they are deemed free and fair, the
United States will seek to re-engage fairly
rapidly. If they're not, then I think the Obama
Administration will remain at arm's length. This
is because it doesnt feel like it will pay much of
a cost - unlike Australia - by its isolation of Fiji.


Mohammad Tahboub and Michael Edward
Walsh. Gregory Poling: Assessing the Strategic
Implications of the Pacific Island Development
Forum (PIDF). Interviews. Honolulu: Pacific
Islands Society, 9/9/2014.


The views expressed are those of the
respondent.