Author: Dr Tess Newton Cain, Pacific Hub, Griffith Asia Institute
It was quite the year for the Pacific islands in 2021. Countries have had to negotiate the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, while climate change has continued to be a focal point. But while there has been plenty of commentary too narrowly focussed on the impacts of geostrategic competition, domestic and regional politics is where the rubber has really hit the road.
The health impacts of COVID-19 remained minimal in many countries of the region, although that has changed in 2022. There are countries who have yet to have any recorded cases, whilst several others have had a small number of infections that were successfully contained at the border. But there have been serious outbreaks elsewhere — such as in Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.
Vaccination programs have been rolled out across the region, with mixed results. Fiji sought to vaccinate its way out of the Delta wave and was largely successful but lost around 600 lives in the process. Tonga and Samoa have got large proportions of their populations vaccinated. In Papua New Guinea, the vaccine rate continues to languish at just over 3 per cent. Vaccine hesitancy, fuelled by misinformation, is proving to be a serious impediment. In places such as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, progress is being made slowly.
Yet it remains a concern that while some in rich countries are lining up for their third or fourth vaccination dose, many in the Pacific are still awaiting their first.
When Pacific island countries closed their borders in early 2020, it is unlikely that their leaders thought they would remain firmly shut at the end of the following year. Barring Fiji, this is the case. The impacts on Pacific economies are severe. Apart from the reduction in tourism, we have seen seafarers stranded for months and Pacific exporters struggle to cope with rising freight costs.
The ability of Pacific island countries and their negotiators to take part in COP26, held in Glasgow after a postponement in 2020, was severely limited. Still, the region’s negotiators and activists made their presence felt in many of the key conversations. Gains were made, including in climate finance and ‘loss and damage’. While there was widespread disappointment that a last-minute wording change meant that we finished with a commitment to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’ coal, there was also recognition that having the term ‘coal’ appear in the Glasgow Climate Compact was itself an achievement.
Regional unity suffered a body blow at the beginning of the year, with the five Micronesian members (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Republic of Marshall Islands and Palau) activating their withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum. The process takes a period of 12 months and there were numerous efforts during 2021 to bring about a change of heart. So far, they do not appear to have succeeded.
After an extended period of stable (to the point of stagnant) politics, 2021 saw unprecedented turbulence in Samoa in the aftermath of their general elections. After many twists and turns, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was confirmed as the country’s first female prime minister.
In Solomon Islands, protests against the government led by Manasseh Sogavare turned violent in November. Extensive looting and burning of buildings ensued and there were three fatalities. As order was restored by the Solomon Islands police, with assistance from regional partners, Sogavare defeated a motion of no confidence on the floor of parliament. Longstanding frictions between the national government and the provincial government of Malaita have continued, reigniting calls for constitutional change that will give more autonomy to sub-national governments.
The year rounded out with New Caledonia’s third independence referendum. The vote was held on 12 December, despite calls from pro-independence groups for it to be delayed until 2022. Having had this call ignored by France, the pro-independence groups then called for non-participation in the referendum. This was well heeded. Voter turnout was 43.87 per cent, down from 85.69 per cent in 2020. Unsurprisingly, the result was overwhelmingly in favour of the territory remaining a part of France. This has been rejected by pro-independence groups, who have lodged an appeal against the result.
There is much on which the peoples of the Pacific can and will reflect. Their resilience and resolve have been tested in numerous ways. Their voices have been heard in forums from which they have previously been absent. The rest of the world has learned more about their region and their ways of thinking and being than they had known before.
Dr Tess Newton Cain is the project lead of the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.
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