Review of Pacific Plan Essential for an Effective Pacific Islands Forum

Between 31 July and 3 August, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat meetings in Fiji set a tone for the forthcoming leaders’ meetings in the Cook Islands at the end of August.  Much of the media focus surrounding the Pacific has centered on the US involvement in the dialogue as part of its rebalancing, and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand’s changing relations with Fiji.  As the Secretariat meetings have indicated, however, reforming the Pacific Plan to reflect the contemporary political, economic and security conditions in the Pacific will be critical for this year.  Issues of labor mobility and trade integration within the Pacific Islands region will be critical to the continued development and success of the Pacific Plan and the Pacific as a whole. 

A product of the 2004 Auckland Declaration, the Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’ that enables initiatives to adapt with the framework. The Pacific Plan has four pillars aimed at enhancing economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security of the Pacific through regionalism.  Securing actions at the national level has been a paramount concern given the diversity of states and disparity in wealth.

One goal in reviewing the current Pacific Plan should be to improve labor mobility in the region. This goal is steadily gaining traction, but policymakers need to take care to avoid some of the negative aspects of temporary migration and to provide more sustainability.  The Australian Pacific Seasonal Work Pilot Scheme and New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme have been workable models to increase remittances among the island states.  In fact, there are recruiting firms throughout the Pacific that promote workers for both New Zealand and Australian schemes (see, for example,    

However, the seasonal worker schemes create multiple dependencies on unskilled labor.  Horticulture, viticulture and other industries that have seasonal labor needs are more inclined to take on labor with less ability to make demands for rights and benefits; furthermore, migrant labor provides a pool of labor potentially unavailable or unwilling to do the grunt work required in those industries.  Migrants, on the other hand, become dependent on impermanent, unskilled and unpredictable work.  While remittances are highly valued as essential Pacific economies, the type of work created for seasonal workers is currently not the most sustainable either in terms of returning home as a skilled migrant or with a secure income.   

Such an exchange of labor could be expanded to all Forum Island Countries (FICs) in a way that encourages training and the exchange of skills. (See, for example, doctor exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba as a progressive idea; it hasn’t worked well in practice however due to strong ideological fervor among both states).  For a more skilled and sustainable Pacific economy, training is needed outside of the temporary program, and protections are needed against exploitation.  Migrants and temporary workers are typically the most disadvantaged in in terms of labor rights and the Pacific has the potential to produce a more equitable regional model.

Like the issue of labor mobility, creating a common market and pursuing free trade in the Pacific are goals that require careful attention.  Both Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries have explicitly stated that their approach to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations differs from their traditional approach to free trade agreements; rather than focusing solely on their states’ commercial interests, Australia and New Zealand aim to promote the development and capacity of FICs.  The two regional powers additionally must maintain competitiveness with potential trade agreements that FICs make with the European Union. 

With ever-increasing collusion among trade, development and foreign policies, taking steps toward free trade agreements is a precondition for aid and greater access to NZ and Australian markets.  The goal of PACER Plus is to start with free trade within the FICs to demonstrate their abilities to cope with such policies.  One problem encountered by the region is that the principles of free trade clash with certain traditional Pacific principles (e.g. property rights).  Regionally, community development solutions such as bulk purchasing invite avenues for creativity and take into consideration the nature and interests of Pacific Island states.

Globalization and the changing international political landscape are creating an increasingly competitive environment in the Pacific.  As the region draws greater attention from China and the US for its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Pacific Islands Forum and its member states should secure a more formidable voice, particularly on issues that impact the region.  An effective review and renewal of the Pacific Plan then must include two of the most noteworthy subjects for development, improved labor mobility and closer economic relations.

Partners in the Pacific: Reflecting on a History of Internationalism

During my latest visit to Wellington in February of this year, I had hoped to find some interesting and unique local or regional books that I could not acquire in Washington, DC.  On my last day, I decided to stop in Arty Bees Books on Manners Street.  To my surprise, I found the first ever study of New Zealand’s defense system, Defending New Zealand: A Study of Structures, Processes and Relationships (1993), by one of my former professors at Victoria University, Dr. James Rolfe.  While some of the empirical information is no longer current, the book provides a snapshot of New Zealand defense environment and policymaking. In parts it tells a tale similar to (and is almost as witty as) the 2012 Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Lecture at Georgetown University given by New Zealand Ambassador to the US, Honorable Mike Moore.  Ambassador Moore’s speech was more sentimental and as you would expect did not focus on the thrills of policymaking, but drew on the experience of the ANZACs in WWI to reflect on contemporary international affairs. Both Dr. Rolfe and Ambassador Moore contend that New Zealand is internationalist at heart, never impartial, and prefers an institutions-based environment to level the field. 

As we commemorate ANZAC Day, with services held across the globe, we gain insight into the sacrifices of small states in defense of their allies and outside of their homeland.  American exceptionalism has taken US troops around the world in what seems to be perpetual conflicts, emergencies and wars both in support of others and defense of American ideals.  In New Zealand and Australia, however, defense takes on a different meaning.  My instant favorite excerpt from Rolfe’s classic text is as follows:

 Undoubtedly politicians do not believe that there are votes to be gained in pushing for increased defense expenditure, especially at the expense of housing, health or education.  But it is not likely that responsible politicians believe that the armed forces, with the resources allowed, could not achieve the tasks set for them. More likely there is a belief, unspoken or even unacknowledged, that there is no real need for armed force in the modern international order.  But just in case we are wrong, we will have a token organization which can be produced to work in conjunction with a larger state or group of states.  In the meantime, we will make unverifiable statements about our willingness and capability to operate as necessary in the region. (Rolfe, 1993: 167)

While September 11 changed the patterns of much of the West, defense is not necessarily a vote-winning topic for New Zealand politicians.  In New Zealand “when attention is focused on the activities of the armed forces, the question of cost is inevitably raised and from this follows the question of need.” (Rolfe, 168)  With few enemies (other than people bringing quarantined items through airport security), relatively small populations and a unique geography in the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia focus much of their regional energy into trade partnerships, maintain an ever closer security relationship with each other and rely heavily on the US. 

That being said, as Ambassador Moore pointed out, New Zealand has been a keen participator in international events and conflicts, as ANZAC Day reminds us. “During the First World War, 42 percent of New Zealand males between the ages of 19 and 45 fought, with a casualty rate of 58 percent. 40 percent of Australian males fought with a casualty rate of 68.5 percent.  Similar figures were true of the Second World War.”  In conflicts and in peacekeeping operations from Afghanistan to Bougainville to the former Yugoslavia, “you will find New Zealanders and Australians.”

In Defending New Zealand, Rolfe’s interpretation of New Zealand defense policy still rings true to Ambassador Moore’s explanation: the state’s defense interests are mainly concerned with the external environment.  On the one hand, this focus is “a reflection of the truism that a military threat, to the extent that one is perceived, could only come from overseas.”  On the other hand, New Zealand believes, as does the US, that using military force in neighboring regions “to assist in stability and security will in turn reinforce stability and security in the immediate region to the benefit of New Zealand’s ultimate security”. Because of the sacrifices made throughout history and its focus on international engagement, New Zealand policymakers understand that the country’s security cannot be solely determined within Oceania. (Rolfe, 1993: 3)

While New Zealand diplomats have historically punched above their weight and have been a strong progressive voice that at times caused tensions (especially with the issue of being nuclear-free), all democratic states should be keen to have New Zealand; the state is stable, outspoken and an active regional player of the Asia-Pacific.  Furthermore, the justifications for such outward foreign and defense policies should be lauded.  According to Rolfe, the internationalist outlook of New Zealand is recognition that, as a small state, if it wants to influence the world it must participate in the world.  “It argues that there are greater benefits to participation than there are costs, and what costs there are, are costs which any member of the international system should bear.” (Rolfe, 1993: 5)  For Ambassador Moore, “War is not inevitable but neither is peace….Patient, prudent, principled, predictable engagement at every level is the only golden rule.”