Shane Jones: Pacific Island Forum - PM Jacinda Ardern needs to put something in kava bowl

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has moved on from Asia, US, EU, Boris Johnson, Australia and is now in Fiji at the Pacific Islands Forum annual meeting.

She has to perform with this regional body that covers Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia with clarity and purpose. The international brand show is over.

What will she actually deliver on our behalf that is new and not bureaucratic bubble and squeak? Preaching abroad about improving Pacific outcomes must be matched with practical initiatives. Her diplomatic outreach needs to be more grounded, advancing our own interests alongside those of our Pacific partners.

In Australia, she told the Lowy Institute audience China is more assertive but there are still shared interests on which we should cooperate. Okay, what are they? What will actually be done? Debt write-offs, joint infrastructure developments, health outreaches?

Is this a feasible position for New Zealand, given we have just signed up to an informal mechanism, Partners in the Blue Pacific? A loose alliance of the US, UK, Australia, Japan and ourselves. Apparently, it is designed to forge stronger ties with the forum. Why? Don't we already belong to the forum?

Who knows? There is no explanation from our Government as to what this means for Pacific security and development. Such multilateral initiatives have to be balanced with strong bilateral commitments and programmes. The former is useful for corralling international resources but the latter is the foundation of our Pacific relationships. An area that has been neglected by the Ardern government.

This year the forum will be chaired by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. This represents a rehabilitation for him and Fiji given they were expelled from the forum in 2009. Academics will long debate whether Canberra and New Zealand overplayed their hand in this expulsion.

Bottom line, in Helen Clark's time there was no free Fiji pass until democracy was re-established after the 2006 military coup. Although she left the Beehive in 2008, her approach to Fiji continued under John Key.

Previously, Bainimarama wanted us and Australia booted out of the forum. Although Fiji was re-admitted in 2014, it took five years for him to physically attend meetings. He finally arrived in Tuvalu, a meeting that attracted media attention after he gave Australian PM Scott Morrison a verbal spray.

There is a range of critical issues which hover above the forum. That includes climate responses, Beijing's agenda, geopolitical jousting and budgetary challenges. The diplomats and the forum staff members will attempt to steer the politicians away from contentiousness.

Perhaps the headline unruliness of the chairman means that the Solomons/China security pact will be addressed head-on. After all, this agreement has triggered a new wave of geopolitical posturing.

Probably not. Bainimarama has said this gathering must focus on rebuilding trust and confidence in the forum family. Given his redemption journey, he should request a justification from Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare as to why he has undermined the family.

The Biketawa declaration is an agreement that Pacific countries have committed to for regional security purposes; it enables intervention in an emergency. It was signed by the Solomons and others on the Biketawa Island, Kiribati, in 2000. It is designed to uphold good governance, democratic institutions, transparency and accountability.

Why has Sogavare circumvented it? Previously he has relied upon it. Is he planning to violate its tenets? Given his motivation is domestic, will anyone call him out? Perhaps our Prime Minister will drive home her remarks from the Lowy Institute where she said Pacific security has to be dealt with first and foremost by the forum family.

With the scale of Australasian resources directed to Solomons civil unrest, forum members should not sweep this away.

The Solomons/Beijing security pact was signed up by China's Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on a 10-day Pacific tour touting a multilateral agreement to deepen security and economic ties with the region. His trip was hamfisted and showy, quite unlike the usual Chinese way. Someone gave him lousy advice.

Although the broad agreement was rebuffed, it's clear Beijing will endeavour to strengthen state-to-state relationships throughout the Pacific. These nations will continue to seek ways of interacting with China primarily on an economic basis.

Fiji has recently accepted an invitation to sign up to the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy. Although this is related to the US/Sino power struggle, Fiji knows where it stands with China. It has significant infrastructure debt and other connections.

Indeed, Bainimarama declared after his military coup he would look north. Chinese investors obliged. Thankfully, he has now found his compass which shows him that his nation is geographically a part of the Pacific family.

The renewed interest from the US in the Pacific countries has to be accompanied by measurable finance and projects. Build some actual bridges and not verbal overpasses. Increased fisheries surveillance and hard-nosed action against illegal operators would be a positive development.

Spending from the five countries that comprise the Blue Pacific partnership can make a material difference. This mechanism needs to be more than a Washington echo chamber. Such behaviour could easily morph into a policy flea market.

Development interventions need to be guided by prioritising projects that give greater economic resilience to Pacific nations. After all, that is the primary attraction in respect of China. Words without a wallet will fail.

Our diplomats will be wary of a bidding war but we have much to offer at a practical level including a speciality, unlike the Aussies, in soft diplomacy. Such an approach requires time and travel. A cursory look at the ministerial diary of Nanaia Mahuta reveals this has not happened.

There has been needless foreign policy drift and New Zealand's influence in the Pacific needs to be more than camp hopping. Global word salad might be good domestic fodder but it will leave our forum family bemused with a long face. Time for our Government to show the Pacific there is weight and gravity beyond brand Jacinda.