The 40th annual Pacific Islands Forum took place in the Queensland city of Cairns on August 5-6. Fifteen heads of state from the region met to discuss a range of issues including a new regional free trade agreement, the situation in Fiji and climate change.
The forum is supposed to “enhance the economic and social well-being of the people of the South Pacific” but, in reality, Australia and New Zealand control the forum and use it as a tool to advance their interests in the region. An example of Australia and New Zealand’s dominance was the ‘discussion’ that took place about climate change.
Rising sea levels due to climate change threaten many of the low-lying Pacific islands. Around 4 million people live on the islands but the population is expected to double in the coming decades. At least half of these people live within 1.5 kilometres of the coast and rising sea levels could force millions to relocate.
While ordinary people in the Pacific contribute very little to the causes of climate change they are set to suffer the most. High levels of poverty mean that, for many, their options will be severely limited.
In the lead up to the Forum many of the small island nations had called on Australia and New Zealand to reduce their ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions by 45 per cent by 2020. Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key baulked at these calls and instead forced through the pathetic target of a 50 per cent reduction by 2050.
The reason why such ineffectual targets were set is because both Key and Rudd are more influenced by the coal industry bosses than they are by the Pacific island nations. They are representatives of big business and see their job as protecting profits rather than protecting the environment.
Fiji had its membership from the Forum suspended in May after Prime Minister and military leader, Frank Bainimarama, abandoned plans to hold elections. In 2008 the forum demanded that Fiji commit to holding a general election by March 2009. Bainimarama rejected this deadline and subsequently Fiji became the first country to ever be suspended from the Forum.
Fiji’s suspension was largely driven by Australia. While Kevin Rudd claims that he is concerned about democratic rights and the welfare of ordinary Fijians, his real concern is the absence of a compliant regime in Fiji. This is setting back Australian imperialist interests in the region.
Fiji plays an important role in the regional economy and is a key trading hub for countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga. As relations between Fiji and Australia have broken down Bainimarama has been building closer ties with China. While Australia maintains sanctions against Fiji, it is estimated that China loaned Fiji $185 million in 2007 and $102 million in 2008.
The Australian newspaper has also reported that China gave $254 million in secretive aid to Pacific island countries last year which places it on a par with other major donors including Europe, Japan and New Zealand. While Australia is still the major donor in the region, the influence of other powers is of major concern as it cuts across the ability of Australian bosses to exploit Pacific markets.
Regional trade ‘agreement’
The signing of interim trade agreements between the European Union, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, coupled with China’s attempts to extend its influence in the Pacific, forced Rudd and Key to speed up negotiations for a new regional free trade agreement. Australia and New Zealand see the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER-Plus) as a way of securing important markets.
Despite their reluctance, Pacific island countries were forced to commit to beginning formal negotiations at the Forum. Most countries had not wanted to start negotiations for some years but it was made clear to them that financial aid would be linked to their co-operation.
Rudd and Key claim that a more integrated regional economy will benefit the small nations and help raise many out of poverty. The Pacific island leaders have concerns that PACER-Plus will not benefit their own local ruling elites but the deal will also have negative impacts on workers and the poor.
The agreement will require Pacific nations to eliminate tariffs and reduce taxes making imports from Australia and New Zealand much cheaper. This will severely undermine local manufacturing. Some economists estimate that under PACER. Plus, three quarters of Pacific manufacturing could close down, impacting on thousands of jobs.
Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea stand to lose millions of dollars from tariff cuts while other countries such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati and Tonga stand to lose at least 10 per cent of their annual government revenue. This will put pressure on the state leading to inevitable cuts to the public sector and increased taxes on working people.
The agreement will also require Pacific governments to open certain parts of the economy to the private sector and remove restrictions on foreign investments. This would be a boon for private investors in Australia and New Zealand, while leading to increased costs and reduced services for the majority on the islands.
PACER-Plus would also undermine the rights of local Indigenous people to have access to their land. Mining companies in particular would like to see the sweeping aside of traditional land ownership in favour of private and transferable ownership schemes. This would allow easier access to land on the islands with an abundance of natural resources.
Far from providing for the majority, free trade will only increase the gap between rich and poor. PACER-Plus will be good news for Australian and New Zealand exporters and investors but deliver more poverty and fewer rights for local people.
Because of Australia and New Zealand’s dominance, the Pacific Islands Forum lacks credibility in the eyes of many. Nevertheless, it is being used by Rudd and Key to counter China’s influence and extend the base of Australian and New Zealand capitalism.
The labour movement should oppose the neo-colonial agenda being pushed at the Pacific Islands Forum as it only benefits a rich few. Just as the representatives of the bosses in the region plan to build closer relations, so should workers and the poor.
Developing a working class and a socialist alternative to capitalist plunder and exploitation is the only way to ensure that the small Pacific islands are not further driven into poverty or wiped off the map due to climate change. Developing strong labour movement links and extending solidarity is our immediate task.