THE PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM Leaders' Summit in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands that opens today will be a watershed. It will either forge a new path for the region's pre-eminent institution or give ground to the alternative architecture that has grown since Fiji's suspension from participation.
That the stakes are high is evidenced by the unprecedented attendance of the US Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton will be joined by a large Chinese delegation, underscoring the point that the region is geopolitically important.
The summit provides an opportunity for Australia to influence how the region deals with outside powers and on what terms. In recent months Foreign Minister Bob Carr has injected a note of pragmatism into Australia's relations with Fiji and it remains to be seen what impact this will have.
The challenge for the PIF is twofold. First, its place at the centre of regional architecture needs to be cemented in light of the drift towards alternative forms of regional and subregional cooperation. Second, it needs an organisational renovation to face the challenges of globalisation and development.
Australia and other donors have long identified the PIF as the key institution for implementing development policies in the Pacific. This is the orthodox function of the PIF and one Australia and New Zealand have largely bankrolled for more than 40 years. More recently, the PIF has taken on a diplomatic role. This political role was compounded by the response to the 2006 coup in Fiji as the PIF became the central vehicle for legitimising the Australian-led sanctions regime.
Six years of sanctions have not achieved their stated aims, in so far as Fiji has not returned to democracy. That said, Australia has reaffirmed its leadership to the other members of the PIF and to external powers and organisations such as the US, China, UN and EU.
However, come 2014 when elections are held in Fiji the the rationale for sanctions will end. Fiji will presumably be welcomed back into the PIF and as such Australia and its supporters will be faced with much more challenging diplomacy.
The rise of alternative forms of regionalism is a direct result of Fiji's suspension and poses the largest challenge to Australia. The Melanesian Spearhead Group, Engaging with the Pacific meetings and the Pacific Small Island Developing States grouping at the UN have much in common, not the least that Australia is excluded from membership. They are largely driven by Fiji's "Look north plus" policy.
Fiji has made new friends and opened up new avenues of co-operation and as Australia chooses to re-engage it will be operating in a vastly different Pacific seascape. In this climate the continuing relevance of the PIF will need to be demonstrated rather than simply asserted. Fiji is not likely to accept the status quo and may need to be encouraged to resume its engagement with PIF.