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  • The Region in Review:International Issues and Events, 2021
  • Nic Maclellan (bio)

It was another tough year for Pacific regionalism as Pacific Island leaders sought to advance their Blue Pacific agenda. The ongoing global covid-19 pandemic caused medical, economic, and cultural damage, at a time of sharpened geopolitical tensions between the United States, China, and other major players. These pressures contributed to significant conflicts within key regional institutions, including the Pacific Islands Forum (pif) and the University of the South Pacific (usp).

Throughout the year, regional traditions of dialogue and consensus building were sorely tested. The unprecedented plan of five Micronesian nations to leave the Forum highlighted these tensions, as national governments and subregional organizations questioned the mandate and capacity of regional intergovernmental agencies. Geopolitical competition overlaid long-term domestic challenges, and the Forum's outgoing Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor lamented: "During covid, I saw multilateralism virtually disappear. All these people who talk about the importance of multilateralism, where were they? What we did see was a real increase in bilateralism. Bilateral and strategic interests were very much at play" (Maclellan 2021g).

Security analysts Rebecca Strating and Joanne Wallis argued that Pacific Island states "are facing increasingly acute questions about how to balance their security and economic relationships, with most being dependent on the United States or its allies for security and China for prosperity. Second, Oceanic states are recalibrating to varying degrees how they manage their relationships with great powers, particularly their preference for maintaining relatively autonomous foreign and security policies. Third, strategic competition is forcing them to reconsider their intraregional policies and relations with each other" (2022, 188).

Despite internal tensions, Forum member nations sought to maintain a common voice on core agendas like climate change, fisheries, and ocean resource management. Throughout the year, Island leaders intervened around a series of international summits, including the Climate Action Summit convened by US President Joe Biden (April); the g7 summit (June); Japan's ninth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (July); the fifth France-Oceania summit (July); the creation of the new Australia–United Kingdom–United States (aukus) partnership (September); a new China-Pacific foreign ministers' meeting (October); and the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (cop26) climate negotiations (November).

The first cases of sars-Cov-2 coronavirus in the Pacific were recorded in March 2020, and throughout 2021 the pandemic continued to disrupt economic, political, and social systems. There were 258,439 recorded cases and 2,757 deaths across the region as of 14 February 2022 (spc 2022). The greatest case numbers [End Page 422] were reported in the colonial territories French Polynesia (58,508), Guåhan (Guam) (40,280), and New Caledonia (38,522) and in the largest independent Pacific Island nations, Fiji (63,509) and Papua New Guinea (PNG) (38,671 recorded cases, but likely much higher).

A number of Pacific countries and territories that had remained covid-19-free or avoided major surges of infection in 2020 were hammered during 2021, as the Delta and Omicron variants spread around the world. Fiji, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia all saw major new surges of infection, stressing medical systems and national budgets.

In Fiji, the Bainimarama government launched a systematic vaccination program to improve community protection—by November, 90.6 percent of the eligible population had been fully vaccinated, and the government began rolling out Moderna vaccine booster shots. In December, Fiji slowly opened its borders to international tourists, a major achievement for a regional travel hub devastated by the pandemic.

New Caledonia managed to control covid-19 cases at the border throughout 2020, but at massive economic cost: the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies reported a 93 percent drop in arrivals from France for the last three quarters of 2020. The damage to tourism was stark: 117,699 people arrived in the first quarter of 2020, but from March to December, there were only 6,891 arrivals (isee 2021b).

Smaller countries like Nauru, Cook Islands, and Tokelau reached 100 percent double vaccination by year's end. In contrast, larger Melanesian nations had much lower coverage due to population size, weaker health systems, and, in some areas, complacency after avoiding major outbreaks in the...