This year's Pacific Islands Forum was without doubt one of the low points in the development of the Pacific region.
On the day before the Cairns meeting, the leaders of the island nations met without Australia and New Zealand present to iron out a unified approach to Pacific trade negotiations and other matters. At this meeting, they firmly concluded that they wanted negotiations for the regional free-trade agreement known as PACER Plus to be temporarily deferred until they had enough time to consider them more thoroughly.
The next day at the forum meeting, however, with Rudd and Co present, they reversed that decision and agreed to commence trade negotiations forthwith. This was a terribly sad event — and yet it represents a dynamic that is now very common at the regional meeting.
It demonstrated two things: first how much Rudd is willing to impose his will on the region; and second with how little seriousness island leaders take their own word. The decision of the four Melanesian Spearhead Group countries and the 14 Pacific ACP states prior to the forum could be reversed within a day or two once Australia and New Zealand intervened.
All decent Australians and New Zealanders should fear this use of power by their governments against small and powerless islands because it will come back to bite them one day.
Trade agreements are entered into when both sides think they will be better off as a result. History shows that when one powerful side imposes such an agreement on a small unwilling party it is a recipe for resentment and hatred — often with terrible consequences.
There is a long history to these kinds of "unequal treaties" affecting relations between strong and weak nations in the Pacific. If Australians and New Zealanders want to examine a precedent for the way their governments are behaving they can look at the way Western powers humiliated Japan and China in the 19th Century. The US famously sent gunships to force trade deals with Japan, while a whole club of Western nations systematically dispossessed China. When a people is denied the right to negotiate just terms in its foreign affairs, as China and Japan were, they do not forget — as both powers have amply demonstrated over the course of the last hundred years.
Of course it is another age and Rudd is unlikely to send the Australian Navy into Suva Bay (although in Suva, some say his predecessor already tried). Nor are the islands ever likely going to be in a position to do anything like Japan did to the US. But it is certainly a more coercive age than just 20 years ago, and Rudd appears willing to listen to the Australian bureaucrats who wish to apply massive pressure on the islands to enter into a negotiation they are simply not yet ready for. His bureaucrats are willing to do this because they "know what is good for the islands". They have the answers and what Pacific Islanders want is of no material concern. Of course, with similar humility, the Americans knew that trade was good for Japan 150 years ago, too.
What Australia and New Zealand did in Cairns was utterly humiliating to Pacific Island leaders. It is a sad reflection on some of these leaders that they may not even see this as a humiliation. Unfortunately, in the minds of many them, to agree to one thing today and to the exact opposite the next day because "masta" said so is simply a fact of day-to-day politics in the region.
In 30 years time, when the next generation of young Pacific Islanders read about this and other similar events, this will be seen as a part of a long history of national humiliation by pin-striped bullies — not the actions of people who say they are good friends and neighbours.
As inconceivable as it may seem, Rudd is well on his way to making an even bigger hash of his relations with the Pacific islands than his predecessor did, and in the process he is helping create a generation of leaders who will despise Australia rather than thank it for years of assistance provided by its taxpayers.
It is prudent for the Australian and New Zealand governments to step back a bit and start to treat island leaders and peoples with greater respect than what was shown at Cairns. It is undeniable that the islands are not ready to negotiate PACER-Plus — because that is precisely what the Pacific Island leaders publicly and voluntarily said before Rudd came into the room and forced them to reverse their position.
If the Rudd Government steps back from the dangerous advice being given to it by those who run Pacific Island policy in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and AusAid (the very same people who advised Howard's government) it might find that Pacific Islanders actually want a trade treaty with Australia — they just want it at their own pace, not at PACER Plus.
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