The Pacific Islands Forum is meeting this week in Papua New Guinea for their annual get together, in a summit that looks to be more contentious than most. The key issue is the adoption of the Pacific Plan, a regional strategy to boost economic growth, sustainable development, good governance, and security. This has raised the usual issue of the domination of the Forum by New Zealand and (particularly) Australia; the plan is seen as written by and pushing the interests of the larger countries, particularly in the area of security, and PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare has openly denounced it as a plan for Australian control of the region:
They want to control the region so that the prime minister can go back and talk to the prime minister of Britain and the president of the United States and say, `the Pacific is no problem, we're looking after it'.
The other contentious issue is over free trade. The plan calls for both the expansion of the Pacific regional free trade agreements PACER and SPARTECA and the inclusion of trade in services. However, it also calls for easing of immigration restrictions to allow the "temporary movement of labour" as well as goods. The smaller countries, perched precariously at the bottom of the latest UN Human Development Report, see free trade (or rather, free access by Australian and NZ goods) as a threat to their development rather than an avenue for it, while Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand are not interested in worker's visas or temporary migration, seeing it as a threat to local workers and a source of overstayers and illegal immigrants. There's just a whiff of racism about this; in New Zealand, most overstayers and illegal workers are British backpackers - but it only seems to be a problem if you are brown. Still, New Zealand is at least giving some ground on temporary migration, as opposed to Australia, who have refused to even consider it.
While the plan is likely to be approved, these disagreements do not bode well for the future. If the Forum comes to be seen as a venue where the big nations extract one-sided agreements by twisting the arms of the smaller ones, then it calls the entire project into question - and raises the question of why the small nations should bother to participate at all.