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Regional solidarity is crucial for Pacific Island nations to curb the influence of powerful external actors, said Dr Colin Tukuitonga at The Australian National University (ANU) in February.
Dr Tukuitonga, Director-General of the Pacific Community, the largest Pacific Islands regional organisation, delivered the annual ST Lee Lecture at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
“We’re being picked up by the big fish, one-by-one,” said Dr Tukuitonga.
“In a region like the Pacific, with so many small nations, the ability to coordinate our actions and to stay united behind our goals is essential.”
There are recent examples whereby regional actions have had a positive impact, he argued. For example, Pacific Island nations have dramatically increased the amount returned to the region from tuna sales, one of the region’s largest industries.
“In recent times, most of the benefits of the tuna industry have accrued to other people outside the region, and we’re trying hard to ensure more of those benefits return to the region,” said Dr Tukuitonga.
These efforts are now seeing results. From a return of only $60 million from a $6 billion industry, the region is now on track to see a $1 billion return, he said.
Dr Tukuitonga said Pacific leaders have also had global impact in climate change negotiations.
“When people were going to Paris two years ago for the signing of the Paris agreement, I don’t think anyone gave the Pacific Island nations a chance of having an impact, but they did.”
“It’s been the best example I can think of where the leaders have come together, united in their statement, and made a big splash at the global level.”
Yet despite the evidence of its benefits, Pacific solidarity remains “inconsistent and fragile”, said Dr Tukuitonga.
He argued that effective regional leadership has been missing.
“There are some very good leaders for their nations in the Pacific, but I can’t say that we have strong regional leaders who speak consistently for the region, with the exception perhaps around climate change.”
“Shared interests are often not enough to keep people together. Issues of trust and confidence are often at the forefront.”
This lack of unity has left Pacific Island nations “open to exploitation” from outside the region, and has also reflected issues internally.
“I think we have some work to do on ourselves to put an end to tribalism, nepotism and favouritism and to step up on corruption,” said Dr Tukuitonga.
“We can’t continue to moan about others without doing the homework ourselves.”
You can listen to Dr Tukuitonga, along with ANU Pacific experts Dr Matthew Dornan and Associate Professor Meg Keen, on the latest episode of the Policy Forum Pod. You can also watch a replay of the lecture via Asia & the Pacific at ANU on Facebook.
The ST Lee Lecture was established in 2007 courtesy of a donation from Dr Seng Tee Lee of the Lee Foundation in Singapore. An annual event at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the ST Lee Lecture provides an opportunity for a distinguished figure from the Asia Pacific to speak on developments or trends in the region.
Previous speakers have included former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, former Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the first president of Timor-Leste, Xanana Gusmao, distinguished Singaporean academic and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine.