I was a student in the early 1970s when the Pacific Islands Forum came into being. It was a time of rapid politicisation within the region. Formally a collection of imperial curios, the Pacific was awakening to the possibilities of political independence.

Decolonization burned hotly in local imaginations, while globally all eyes were on the spread of communism. As we watched the Soviet Bloc expand across Europe and into Asia, a climate of fear envisioned it sweeping into the South Pacific.

Seven nations made up the founding members of a body that sought to foster security and economic development through regional co-operation. It was out of this idea that the forum came in during 1971 with what they hoped would be prosperity through unity.

This week, Auckland is hosting a forum that now consists of 16 member states with an additional two associate members, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Also in attendance is the Secretary-General of the UN, representatives of the Commonwealth, United States, European Union, Japan and China, to name a few. They have reason to value island votes in international institutions.


Marking its 40th anniversary, terrorism has replaced communism, along with a financial crisis that has been felt even in the remotest islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu. Meanwhile, climate change threatens the economies and even the existence of some of the forum's members. Some members find their situations to be in dramatic contrast to that of the past.

Fiji as a sovereign nation was only a year old when it became part of the original seven. At the time, Fiji claimed to be the most peaceful, multicultural society in the Pacific, even the world. Now, Fiji finds itself suspended for playing host to a series of coups that started in 1987.

Another original, Nauru, had the highest income-per-capita in the world. Phosphate mining propelled its economy to incredible heights, with the majority of that resource finding itself on to Australian farmland. Today, from where they once shipped phosphate, comes Australian foreign aid, on which Nauru is dependent along with assistance from the forum.

Tonga was there in 1971 as a member monarchy. Over the past year, we have seen Tonga take cautious steps towards democracy.

Australia and New Zealand were the wealthiest of the seven, New Zealand playing host to the inaugural meeting in Wellington. Australia no longer saw itself as a large island from the Continent and preferred to be seen as a large continent from the Islands. New Zealand was still not disentangled from British apron strings and, like Australia, enjoyed Commonwealth preferential trade treatment. This allowed both to operate a highly protectionist economic policy - a "beggar thy neighbour" approach.

In many ways, Australia is still as confused about its aboriginal population as it was then. A recent import ban on kava is another shot at solving their social ills. For its part, New Zealand has accepted its responsibility for the Treaty of Waitangi and is paying for it in the millions.

Papua New Guinea, once a curious Australian colony, is now a leading member and a dynamic economic player within the region. Unfortunately, their resource wealth has come at a cost with a conflict centred on Bougainville copper mining claiming tens of thousands of lives. Currently at peace, PNG looks towards 2015 and a referendum on Bougainville independence.

PNG's neighbour, the Solomon Islands, is part of the forum. Once dubbed the most peaceful and stable nation in the region, it now sits under the watch of peacekeepers after a prolonged bout of ethnic violence.

So what is to be said about the original idea for prosperity through unity? New Zealand is making a firm statement with their theme for 2011, "Converting Potential into Prosperity: New Zealand's Commitment to the Pacific". It is a commitment that stretches from private sector support to disaster response. Yet, I believe that for now and beyond, we need to redefine regional unity in terms of the inherent diversity in the decisions made by our forum leaders. To paraphrase an idea, translate our diversity into future peace and prosperity.

Dr Sitiveni Halapua is a Tongan MP and academic at the East West Centre in Hawaii.