Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat
What are the challenges for network governance at the sub-regional and regional interface?

[1]Sub-regionalism is not something that is new in our region. Recently, we have seen a rise in the level of activity at the sub-regional level, including developments in relation to trade, economic integration and political activity (Newton Cain, 2015a). Not everyone accepts the use of the term ‘sub-regionalism’ on the basis that it assumes some kind of hierarchy where smaller groupings are in some way subservient to larger groupings (Aqorau, 2016).
Just as the term ‘regionalism’ is interpreted in several ways in the Pacific context (Newton Cain, 2015a), so there are several ways to think about ‘sub-regionalism’. Here I consider three ways in which ‘sub-regionalism’ can be constructed:

  1. Groupings that align with the broadly accepted geo-cultural delineations of Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia – they are ‘sub-regional’ in the sense that they are a subset of the geographical area commonly known as the Pacific island region;
  2. Multi-country groupings that have come together around a particular issue or to pool resources in some way – they are ‘sub-regional’ in the sense that they comprise some but not all of the Pacific island countries;
  3. Multi-country groupings that depend on PIFS processes to facilitate their activities but whose membership is smaller than the whole of the PIF membership.

Key Messages

  • The term ‘sub-regionalism’ means different things in different contexts
  • Sub-regional groupings arise in response to a range of drivers
  • Relationships between regional and sub-regional groupings are in different stages of development and change over time
  • There are opportunities to improve the sub-regional/regional governance interface
  • Challenges at the interface are not limited to competition for resources although this is a significant issue


In the first subset we have the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit, the Micronesian Chief Executives’ Summit, the Polynesian Leaders’ Group and the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

Micronesian Presidents’ Summit (MPS)

Micronesian Chief Executives’ Summit (MCES)

Polynesian Leaders’ Group (PLG)

Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG)

Recent research suggested that the obstacles to successful pooled service delivery on a pan-regional basis may be more easily surmounted by adopting a sub-regional approach (Dornan & Newton Cain, 2014). The PNA is an example of sub-regional pooled service delivery.

Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA)

In the third subset there are two key multi-country groupings whose membership is smaller than the full PIF membership and whose activities and processes are facilitated by the PIFS.

Smaller Islands States (SIS)

Pacific ACP States (PACPS)

  1. Members: Cook Islands, FSM, Fiji, RMI, Nauru, Niue, Palau, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu[3]
  2. Primary purpose is to manage the negotiations relating to the European Partnership Agreement (EPA) under the Cotonou Agreement.

It is evident that there are issues of overlapping and shared membership among these groupings and between sub-regional entities and regional organisations. This is not surprising given what we know about the ‘patchwork’ nature of regionalism in the Pacific (Dornan & Newton Cain, 2014).

Case studies
The case studies below present an overview of some of the current points of interface between regional and sub-regional groupings. They identify some current opportunities and challenges that have been identified and how these relationships can be further developed in the future.SIS/PIF.

The interface between the SIS and PIF can best be described as ‘undeveloped’. The FPR restates that the particular challenges of the smaller island states need to be given prominence in the whole of the regionalism agenda. In 2016, the leaders of the SIS adopted a new strategy. It is formulated around political recognition of two things:

  1. working together requires everyone to consider what concessions they are willing to make; and
  2. the nature of sub-regionalism requires identification of how the smaller group can contribute to a wider agenda that will benefit all.

The strategy identifies five thematic areas to be progressed as part of the implementation of the FPR. It is anticipated that the strategy will provide an appropriate structure to guide future engagement with the PIF. It is also intended to satisfy the wish of the SIS leaders to have more prominence politically as well as have more control over governance, planning and resourcing, especially as channelled through the SIS Unit of the PIFS.

The SIS Strategy also allows for the SIS to contribute to regionalism at a wider level. For example, the SIS leaders will formulate a joint application for funding support to the Global Climate Fund (GCF). This reflects SIS leaders’ acceptance that pooling capacity and minimising transaction costs are benefits that outweigh the possible (primarily political) costs associated with foregoing individual negotiation. This will be the first such application the GCF has received and the progress of this application will provide very important lessons for the whole of the Pacific island region for the future.

At present, the main focus for interaction between these groupings is trade. There are several historical reasons for this, including that prior to 2007, PIFS was the repository of the MSGTA. Added to this, several members of the staff of the MSG secretariat were previously members of the trade section of the PIFS.

Within the PIFS the interactions at a formal level are characterised as being based on tolerance. At an informal level, relationships are felt to be largely positive, based on people in both organisations having worked together previously. Currently there is an MOU in development (after a prolonged period of inactivity in relation to this initiative), which, it is hoped, will help to develop the PIFS/MSG relationship at the formal level. This arrangement can hopefully provide something of a ‘bridge’ to enable parties on both sides to engage more often and more effectively. From within the PIFS, it is hoped that the MOU will focus on three or four clearly defined points of engagement where resources can be shared and competition for funding can be reduced or minimised. A key area where the MSG can contribute to regional endeavours is by sharing data relating to trade and investment.

The development of parallel structures has raised questions within the PIFS about duplication and this has also affected funding decisions. For example, the MSG can access funding directly from the EU via their ambassadors in Brussels and this has an adverse effect on funding from that source for the PIFS. However, the MSG secretariat sees the parallel structure as a positive that has served the organisation well to date.

From within the MSG, it is felt that this relationship has improved overall since 2014. There is recognition of the importance of the MSG secretariat working to complement the work of the PIFS rather than duplicating it. The visit of the SG of the PIFS to the MSG secretariat during her visit to Port Vila in 2014 and the MOU currently in development are important indications of the improving nature of this interface and this has been continued more recently via a meeting between the SG and the new DG of the MSG secretariat.

The MSG has indicated in its MSG 2038 Prosperity for All plan that the desire for more and better linkages at this sub-regional/regional interface is an important part of the organisation’s future (Tavola, 2015).

In areas where the MSG and its secretariat have expertise they would expect to provide the lead when working alongside PIFS. The primary aspect of this engagement is trade as a reflection of the success they have had in relation to the MSGTA and their provision of technical assistance in establishing the Micronesian Trade Committee. There are considered to be opportunities to explore how the MSG 2038: Prosperity for All plan can intersect with the FPR. Conversely, the only perceived area of competition for resourcing is in relation to trade and is the reason behind a separate application by the MSG under EDF 11. The MSG sees this as appropriate because their trade agreement is in place and is working plus it means they have full control over the money and can cover overhead costs.

It is felt that the level of engagement may be improved if the MSG were to be granted observer status at the PIF[4] although granting reciprocal observer status at the MSG for the PIF is considered to be a ‘sensitive’ issue.

The MSG secretariat has established a number of MOUs with CROP agencies (SPREP, SPC, USP).

Dr Transform Aqorau, the outgoing CEO of the PNA, most volubly articulates the position on this interface[5]. He contends that the very establishment of the PNA Office (PNAO) was ‘significant to the regional architecture’ for two reasons: the shift of fisheries geopolitics from south to north and the removal of the influence of donors in management of the fisheries. The PNAO is conscious of the perceptions of external parties that their existence creates a perception or risk of duplication of functions with other agencies, including the FFA. Aqorau contends that there will be duplication because other systems are not ‘fit for purpose’ where they are imposed or driven from outside the group of countries who have political ownership of the sub-regional objective. He envisages that the respective roles of PNA, FFA and other agencies will settle out as follows:

The PNA will be responsible for the management, as they already are now of the tropical tuna, while the southern albacore tuna will be managed by a management body coagulated around the countries with a stake in that fishery from within the Pacific Islands, with a possible shift of the FFA to monitoring, compliance and surveillance. Regional trade and marketing issues will come under the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat which the Secretariat to the Pacific Community will retain its core technical support function and scientific services (Aqorau, 2016, p 6)

This sort of structure rests on a presumption that these divisions of labour and responsibility are accepted by all of the relevant agencies. It also raises the issue of how resources are to be allocated to and between the relevant agencies and creates a risk of competing bids for resources being made to country members and/or development partner funding agencies.

From within the FFA it is felt that the relationship at the membership level is one that is very positive and this is reinforced by the fact that a significant amount of the work done by the FFA is to assist PNA members to implement the agreement at national level. This positive relationship is underpinned by a commitment on the part of the FFA in 2009/10 to embrace sub-regionalism and incorporate it into the work it does at the regional level, e.g. preparing negotiating positions in relation to the WCPFC.

At the secretariat level, the relationship is more problematic, especially when the officials are operating from their ‘home bases’[6] with the FFA staff feeling that the PNAO reverts to running down their regional colleagues as a way of establishing their significance. It is felt that the best way to improve this situation is to have a greater degree of formal communication. Reference was made to a formal colloquium between SPC and FFA at the beginning of each year to share work plans, identify opportunities for collaboration and avoid duplication. This has led to a much-improved interface between FFA and SPC. Although there is most likely a need for a FFA/PNA arrangement at least in the first instance, there is a possibility of developing a trilateral (FFA/PNA/SPC) arrangement over time. This arrangement is most likely best supported by an enabling MOU. This type of arrangement was mooted by FFA when the PNAO was first established but was resisted on the grounds that the new organisation need to get itself established. This is a timely opportunity to revisit this proposal given the change in CEO at the PNAO and the upcoming review of the FFA, which includes how to improve relationships with sub-regional partners within its TOR.

There is no significant risk of direct competition for funding between FFA and PNA because the PNA model was designed to be non-dependent on donor funding, relying instead on industry recovery. However, competition does arise in the technical space with the PNAO seeking to expand its sphere of operations in what appears to be a somewhat unstructured way. This brings with it the potential for indirect competition for funding and other technical resources, and duplication risks.

Looking ahead: opportunities and challenges

Complementing or conflicting architecture?
We need to know more about the impact of the development of ‘sub-regional architecture’ on the interface between sub-regional organisations and those that operate at a regional level. In short, does the existence of parallel architecture at the sub-regional level promote or impede meaningful interaction between regional and sub-regional organisations? (Hughes, 2013).

More broadly, there is a need to investigate whether the presence of this ‘counterpart’ architecture creates a mechanism that can facilitate an enhanced regional/sub-regional interface or creates impediments to such a thing.

Another area that requires consideration is how this multiplicity of forums affects state behaviour. As has already been mentioned, there are numerous instances of overlapping membership with most countries in the region participating in two or more of these inter-governmental groupings. However, it is not necessarily easy to see what the effects of this might be.

We might expect to see one or more of the following behaviours exercised:

  1. states using sub-groupings to come together around an issue to consolidate a ‘bloc’ position for prosecution in another (possibly larger) forum;
  2. states using groupings with larger memberships to further an agenda that is not favoured by one or more members of a smaller grouping;
  3. states using larger groupings to retreat from a position adopted by smaller groupings with which they do not agree, whether partly or wholly.

In 2015, the incoming chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of Solomon Islands made reference to the potential for the MSG to act as a bloc at the regional level:

Let me close by reiterating the need for us to work together in solidarity to make our sub-regional group, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) in the Pacific relevant and a strong bloc in advancing our national as well as our collective regional interest for the betterment of our peoples now and in the future (Sogavare, 2015)

This remains largely aspirational. That is not to say that the work of the MSG has not influenced outcomes at the regional level. It is too simplistic to say that MSG activity is why issues relating to West Papua have received consideration (albeit in a rather diluted way) by the Pacific Islands Forum during the last two years (Newton Cain & Dornan 2015; Dornan & Newton Cain, 2016). However, it is valid to say that the negotiations around ULMWP membership of the MSG since the 2013 Noumea summit have certainly contributed to the regional momentum around this issue.

The role of the PIDF also bears consideration in this context. In 2015, it appeared that a number of PIF members made use of the PIDF summit that immediately preceded the PIF Leaders’ meeting to caucus around the issue of climate change. The formulation of the Suva Declaration allowed leaders of the signatory states to develop an agreed position they sought to progress at the subsequent PIF meeting, with some success (Newton Cain & Dornan, 2015). As things currently stand, it is expected that this type of activity will arise infrequently and only in relation to crosscutting issues. It is important to note that an external stimulus may play a significant role in enabling activity of this type – in 2015, the PIDF and PIF summits formed part of the ‘road to Paris’ for the COP21 negotiations.

The ‘patchwork’ nature of regionalism/sub-regionalism can also expose instances of state behaviour that appear, on the face of it, to be inconsistent. Further to the 2016 PIF Leaders’ meeting, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai addressed domestic concerns that his support for expansion of PIF membership was out of step with Vanuatu’s position on self-determination for the people of West Papua and New Caledonia (Ligo, 2016).

Competition for resources or maximising influence?
Whilst it appears that a result of a proliferation of sub-regional entities is increased competition for resources, it is too simplistic to say that this is what drives the creation of these entities. It appears more likely that the decision to form or join a sub-regional grouping relates to questions of influence.

In some circumstances, leaders are seeking to build on a pre-existing position of influence to further strengthen it whether proactively or reactively. The creation of the Pacific Islands Development Forum is the most recent example of this but that is not to say that other groupings have not come about or been enhanced for similar reasons.

The flipside of establishing influence is the need to maintain it and this may foster complexities that arise out of issues of national/regional identity and that may trump pragmatism. For example, it seems self-evident that the MSG and the PIFS would each benefit from an increased and improved level of engagement. However, there may be resistance to this on the part of the MSG membership if this is seen as some sort of ‘back door’ by which Australia and New Zealand could seek to influence activity and decision-making at the sub-regional level. The apparent rebuke of SPC for signing an MOU with the PIDF lends weight to concerns of this type.

The significance of these groupings within the region varies over time. This is often linked to shifts in the relative influence of one or more members of a given group. This ‘patchwork’ nature does pose a particular risk in relation to coordination of resourcing and financing within the region, which is that of ‘forum hopping’. This is something that is to be expected given that political leaders are more focused on national interest rather than pursuing goals associated with regionalism. On the other hand, if more ‘traditional’ sources of funding become limited and newer financing mechanisms require or promote joint applications, leaders may come to see the regional project as one that assists them in delivering on national objectives, thus increasing their enthusiasm for meaningful participation.

Will there be more sub-regional groups formed?
The future of sub-regionalism is not easy to predict. Elsewhere, I have noted that the progress of decolonisation within our region may affect the nature and size of the membership of the MSG (Newton Cain, 2015b) and there are other, possibly less significant, questions arising around who may join either the MPS/MCES or the PLG. Given the inter-governmental nature of these groupings and the fact that their primary focus is political rather than technical, they are all at risk of losing the political support from their membership. If that happens, they may cease to exist in anything other than name.

In relation to sub-regionalism as a mechanism for pooled service delivery, this is not expected to be a significant growth area (Dornan and Newton Cain, 2014). One area that might lend itself to this type of development is in relation to the management of extractive industries. This could bring together countries such as PNG, Solomon Islands and Fiji to establish a pooled resource of technical, regulatory and other expertise to maximise positive impacts (and minimise negative ones) of resource extraction. However, given that these countries are all members of the MSG, it is also possible that such an activity could be convened within that grouping rather than establishing something new.

Where does the PIDF fit in the regional/sub-regional schema?
The PIDF self-describes as a regional organisation and its charter makes few references to the need for a formal interface with the traditional regional architecture. Rather PIDF sees itself as a space in which other regional and sub-regional groupings can connect, as indicated by the use of terms such as ‘dynamic regional partnership’ and ‘Pacific regional counterpart’.

Currently, there are indications that PIDF and MSG are converging. This is centred on the fact that Solomon Islands is the current chair of the MSG (until mid-2017) and that PIDF will be held in Honiara in 2016 and 2017. The new DG of the MSG is a former interim SG of the PIDF. Recently, officials representing both of these groups took part in an aquaculture workshop that was held in Suva and funded by the government of Indonesia. It is too early to tell the extent to which this convergence may progress or what the implications of it might be. Whilst there are opportunities for resource sharing and cost savings associated with a convergence of this type, there are some countervailing issues such as the fact that not all MSG members are part of the PIDF.

How can regional and sub-regional groups increase/improve their engagement?
A possible way forward is to revisit a proposal that emerged a few years ago for the SG of the PIFS to invite her peers (SG/DG) in sub-regional groupings to meet with her for a closed, informal meeting at which issues of common interest can be explored. This could be used as a form of peer-review process in which senior leaders can contribute to the development of positions and activities within sister organisations. It creates opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing to be identified for further development.

Over time, this forum can be expanded to include the senior leadership of other CROP agencies. However, it is important to recognise that the introduction of agencies whose focus is ‘technical’ may exacerbate any pre-existing tensions relating to competition for resourcing of programmes and projects. However, the experience of the SPC/FFA colloquium indicates that it is in technical areas that there is increased clarity as to respective mandates, opportunities for collaboration and the ability to share resources.

A further opportunity that a process of this type can create is to give ‘permission’ to others within regional and sub-regional organisations to liaise whether informally or formally as required and appropriate. This allows for the sub-regional/regional interface to be enhanced by capitalising on the pre-existing relationships between key individuals.

Some of the sub-regional groupings considered here have already established relationships with regional organisations by way of MOU. This is a mechanism that can be utilised further to initiate and develop linkages. Where MOU are already in place, it is recommended that they be reviewed and, if necessary, revised to better reflect the current relationships and allow for anticipated developments.

Another avenue to be explored is that of awarding observer status on a reciprocal basis between regional and sub-regional groupings. This will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis in order to accommodate political sensitivities that may arise.

Author: Tess Newton Cain, TNC Pacific Consulting

This discussion paper was commissioned by the Forum Secretariat as part of a series to inform an analysis of regional governance and financing that the Secretariat is undertaking from 2016-17. The views presented are assigned to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Forum Secretariat. To learn more or ask a question about this work please email the Regional & International Issues Adviser, Anna Naupa: AnnaN@forumsec.org

References and further reading


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