“SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS – WHAT HAVE WE DONE?”

So said a famous singer once and looking back on 2016 it is as poignant a question as ever. There were so many major global events it may be terrifying to some even to try and to think about what all of this means for the future.

But now that celebrations have ended and the new year has begun in earnest, it is important to start thinking about how these events may or may not change people’s lives in the Pacific region. There is much to be positive about, but that will depend if the peoples of the Pacific can use this opportunity of transformation to try and develop their own narrative.

If not, it could be a disaster.

All over the world people are throwing away the old rules of the game—and they are doing so without any new ones in place—but that is as much an opportunity as it is a threat. For regions like the Pacific, which have long been misunderstood and overlooked, they are coming to the notice of world powers once again, for the first time in five decades. It is a chance to have alternative views heard for once and so if Pacific islanders can organise themselves and embrace the opportunity, it could be a positive thing. If not, it might not turn out so well.

TRUMPERY & TRANSACTIONALISM

Nobody really knows who or what this man stands for—probably nothing at all. But his staffing choices—predominantly from military or business backgrounds—suggest that the one thing his people be is transactional in their behaviour. In other words, they will not be held to philosophical doctrines per se. They will simply want something in exchange for something else. Luckily for the Pacific we have seen something similar to this before….

Older heads will recall discussions with the George W Bush Government way back in 2002 when they first mooted the idea of a transaction / performance based aid model. At the time, few people believed them. But then they announced the Millennium Challenge Corporation and everything changed.

The original MCC was headed by General Colin Powell, and took a simplistic military / transactional view on development. And to be honest it worked. It was a breath of fresh air in development, one in which countries were guaranteed a project in return for some mutually agreed results. Vanuatu was one of the first beneficiaries, with the funds coming at a time when Australia itself was having doubts about the Vanuatu aid program.

The arrival of this new way of doing development totally transformed the perception of Pacific islands. Suddenly, here was a major global player wiling to ‘trust but verify’ the very countries that some in Australia were decrying as the ‘arc of instability’.

Whilst many in Vanuatu claim credit for the MCC program, none of those claiming credit were really involved. Those who were are still in an around Government today and know who they are. If these people can once again develop a convincing narrative, then there is no reason not to think that the Trump administration might be a positive think at least in terms of development.

BREXIT, STAGE SOUTH

Whatever one thinks about Brexit, it will probably be a good thing for the former commonwealth countries. Without Europe to rely on for market access, the UK’s focus will have to shift to the Commonwealth. This could be good news for the Pacific, where the Brits effectively walked away at the end of the last century.

As with the USA, a new-look UK will have to be a lot more mercantile in its approach to the region, and this might just mean that finally somebody will start giving the Chinese some serious competition in the region. The abject failure of MFAT in Australia to counter the inexorable rise of Chinese and other influences in the Pacific stems from an old guard in the Australian civil service, which continues doggedly, blindly fighting the battles of the last century.

New, more transaction-oriented British and US Governments are unlikely to take a positive view of what has happened in the region since they left. This could provide the means to get proper engagement, as they attempt to re-establish their presence in a more meaningful way.

NEW GOVERNMENT IN NEW ZEALAND

Whether you agree or disagree with John Key’s policies, he was—at least in terms of development—always consistent. Although he took a similarly mercantilist attitude to aid, it also meant that his Government would support things like seasonal worker programmes. It is not clear whether the new PM will continue the same private sector focus but hopefully, he won’t pull their focus too much further to the right.

OLD GOVERNMENT IN AUSTRALIA

Many Foreign Ministers from all sides of the house have privately lamented that they simply could not change the culture at MFAT. Now, however, either the old guard will die or be pensioned off or Julie Bishop will finally be able to effect some change. Something has got to give. Australia cannot afford to always be on the losing side.

Long term, the country’s engagement with Fiji, PNG and Timor-Leste have all been disastrous. Neither Labor nor Liberal has been able to rein in the ‘stale, pale, male’ brigade that seems to dominate DFAT.

There are some positive signs though, with a more nuanced approach being seen in both Fiji and PNG. But the imminent arrival of the USA and possibly the UK may mean that the politicians in Australia might see the benefit in forcing a change now, rather than having it forced upon them.

NEW / OLD GOVERNMENT IN PNG?

Every election in the Pacific’s biggest country is important, and 2017 will be no exception. With the country either on the brink of a Zimbabwe-style economic implosion (according to some observers) or (according to others) simply stumbling along its usual boom bust cycle—albeit with steeper highs and lows—the economic and political ramifications will be felt throughout the region.

If the new LNG revenues can be harvested correctly in tandem with a significant donor support program based on real reform, PNG could well surge out of its current economic doldrums.

If not, contagion—particularly in the banking sector—may affect the whole region.

UK, US, RUSSIA ALL COMING BACK: DOESN’T THAT SOUND LIKE WORLD WAR III?

Many people are looking back at history and thinking that it does seem to be repeating. If so, organisations like the SPC might once again become more important. Might. It’s hard to be sure.

The point is that these changes most likely will happen, and right now nobody seems able to put forward a coherent narrative for the region. This is important because facile concepts such as the Pacific being a bunch of failed states simply won’t wash.

What the global powers will want to know is how things work and what are the major trade-offs. Historical baggage simply won’t matter. Everything is now back on the table. In the same way the old MCC simply did not care for the old conditional aid programs, it is unlikely that the new Governments will care too much about the past work experience on our collective CV.

If Pacific countries can begin to formulate a clear idea of what they want and what they will be willing to give in exchange, they may find that they are able to manage in this brave new world. If not, it could be a repeat of the age-old story of natives selling their birthright in exchange for tobacco and trinkets.

The increased attention from our friendly neighbourhood superpowers is a threat—but it is also an opportunity. In the past 30 years, the only real success we can point to in the region is the recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change—which itself is a watered-down version of what the Pacific wanted—and maybe the LDC-specific trade rules under WTO.

Maybe the return of the global giants will be an opportunity for some better trade-offs going forward. Either that, or we risk being trampled by the onslaught of history, just like last time.


Nik Soni is chairman and co-founder of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy.

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