Earlier this month the Finance and Economic Ministers of the Pacific Islands Forum member countries met in an online setting. This meeting is one of two standing ministerial meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum. The other is that of the Foreign Ministers.

A virtual meeting is a reflection of the ‘new normal’ that is regionalism in the age of Coronavirus. This year has prompted a definitive change in the way that regional policy makers do business. Dame Meg Taylor, the Secretary General of the Forum has already commented that greater use of online connectivity will be an enduring legacy of COVID-19 in the region.

Owing to the format that was used, the Ministers worked with a reduced agenda. And this certainly accounts for why some things were not given much attention or not even discussed at all. However, given that the Ministers were focused very much on what the Chair, Hon Seve Paeniu, Minister for Finance of Tuvalu, described as the “realisation that we need to readjust our structural economic policies to adjust to this new normal” there appears to have been some significant gaps in what was covered.

For example, there was apparently no detailed discussion of labour mobility. Whilst there is still a need to establish clarity as to what the appetite is on both the demand and supply sides of this equation, it is significant and perhaps disappointing that there appears to be no impetus to take this conversation to the regional level.

It is also significant that there was apparently no discussion of deep-sea mining given that the Ministers were considering how Pacific countries can diversify their economies away from reliance on tourism and remittances. In some member countries, there are growing indications that this may be gaining traction as a means of economic survival. However, this may prove a fault line within the overall membership as others, such as Fiji and Vanuatu, have previously called for a moratorium on this until more is known about its potential impacts on ocean ecosystems.

Turning to what was discussed and decided by the Ministers, a number of things stand out.

First is the agreement to establish a regional COVID-19 Economic Recovery Taskforce. The membership of this taskforce is yet to be determined. Calls for expressions of interest to be part of this work will be sent to Forum member countries. This regional response builds on the establishment of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway – COVID (PHP-C) under the Biketawa declaration.

The Ministers progressed their work in relation to the establishment of a Pacific Resilience Facility. At this meeting they endorsed the convening of bilateral and multilateral partners at a pledging event to capitalise this facility to the tune of US$1.5 billion. However, it is not decided whether the remit of this facility will extend to providing support for communities affected by COVID-19 or other pandemics. Given the global economic contraction of this year and the likely slow road to recovery, it will be interesting to see where, if at all, there is an appetite for financing this facility among development partners.

The prominence of the impacts of COVID-19 was reflected in the issuance of a statement on the pandemic by the Ministers further to their meeting. Reflecting what we have heard from other Pacific leaders, the Ministers situate the current crisis, including its economic facets, within the context of the ongoing existential threat posed by the impacts of climate change, and longstanding economic fragility in the region.

The Ministers made particular mention of their concerns about debt in the region. They called for more by way of debt relief in line with the decision of the G20 in April. They also called on donors and development partners including international financial institutions to look for more opportunities to provide grants and concessional finance to support Pacific countries facing economic hardships. Of particular note is their call on donors to commit to working together to avoid duplication and minimise transaction costs on receiving countries.

This meeting comes at an important time for Pacific regionalism more generally. As is the case elsewhere in the world, countries are tending to look inward for solutions to how to weather the COVID-19 storm. The sense of insularism is heightened by the prolonged closure of international borders. We have also seen that where aid and assistance has been provided to the Pacific, the focus has been on bilateral donations rather than provisions to the region.

Our COVID-19 Pacific aid tracker shows that to date there has been in excess of US1.3 billion provided or pledged to the Pacific to provide support to COVID-19 responses. However, of that amount (which comprises grant assistance, concessional finance and debt forgiveness), only 16% is provided to regional or multi-country mechanisms with the greater bulk of it being directed through bilateral arrangements.

Despite numerous challenges associated with working jointly whilst apart, Pacific policy makers appear committed to progressing where they can. Still to come are virtual meetings of the region’s senior officials and foreign ministers. We also anticipate that the region’s leaders will meet, again online, during October.


Tess Newton Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and project lead of the Pacific Hub.